A Taste of... Cold Judgment

Chapter One

“Do you have to go tonight?”

Omar finished tucking the blanket around his infant son before straightening from the crib to face his wife. He bit back a sigh, not wanting to argue with her again. “You know I do.”

Lana leaned against the doorframe of the baby’s room, an empty bottle in her hand. At barely five feet tall, she was proof that size was no indicator of scrappiness. He’d fallen in love with her fiery personality and fierce brown eyes as much as her lush curves. Despite their fair share of heated arguments, they’d never regretted a single day they’d spent together.

Even after everything he’d done.

To escape the unhappy expression etched into her round face, Omar turned back to the crib, bending low enough to feel the baby’s warmth. Ramon’s lips parted in a silent coo, wafting the scent of stale milk to Omar’s nostrils.

He grazed his scarred knuckles across the baby’s downy cheek. “For Ramon. I do.”

They both knew it was true. Insulin wasn’t cheap, and their baby needed the medicine to live. The glass bottle containing the drug held precious few doses. The prescription that took such a large chunk of his and Lana’s earnings each month would need to be renewed. Otherwise, Ramon would die.

Omar couldn’t let that happen. He would do anything for his son.

Anything.

Omar stepped back from the crib and joined his wife in the hallway, biting back another weary sigh when Lana’s mouth drooped at the edges. If Ramon wasn’t sick, if the medicine wasn’t so expensive, Omar could give her the answer she wanted.

Neither of those things were true, though.

“Maybe…” She bit her lip, her dark gaze lifting to meet his. “What if I work some extra hours instead? And you can talk to Tommy tomorrow about moving to full-time.”

As tears slipped down her cheeks, he pulled her into his arms. “Shhh. Tommy only has part-time work for me at the dock. And we both know,” his eyes locked with hers in the dim hallway light, “the money we need for Ramon, I can only make that on the street.”

Lana dashed her tears away with a quick swipe of her hand. “Stop saying that. There has to be another way. A less dangerous way.” She slipped from his grasp and flattened her body against the dingy wall separating their single bedroom apartment from the one next door. “You get arrested, or worse, and what happens to me and Ramon? Who takes care of us?”

He didn’t have an answer to that, so he sidestepped the question. “Stop with all the worrying. I drive. That’s all. I get people from point A to point B, and driving people isn’t illegal. I’m basically an Uber, okay?” He mustered a smile he hoped would reassure her. She crossed her arms over her chest, the bottle still in her hand. “I’m not dealing, so there’s barely any danger.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth when she turned and slammed a fist against the wall, dropping the baby bottle on the floor. A muffled complaint from the old lady who lived next door came through the thin walls, but the baby didn’t even whimper.

“I don’t believe you.” Her eyelashes glistened with unshed tears.

He couldn’t leave her like this, sad and mad.

Omar squatted to retrieve the bottle. When he straightened, he leaned so close to Lana that their noses touched. “What? You don’t believe in me? Ouch.”

She yanked the bottle from his hand and smacked his shoulder, though a tiny smile played on her lips. “I believe in you, you idiot. I can’t believe you think this is the only way to solve the problem.”

He kissed her cheek, nuzzling his nose into the fragrance of her hair. “For now, it is.”

Leaving her was never easy, and Omar had to force himself to turn away. If he got lost in her eyes, so filled with concern for a jerk like him, he might never go.

Ramon cooed again, injecting him with the motivation he needed to reach for the front door. “Lock the chain behind me. I’ll see you in the morning.” He winked at her. “I love you, you know. Love our life together.”

Tears shimmered in her eyes again. “I love you too, you big lug.”

She had forgiven him. She understood. She knew he was trying. They were okay.

With the comfort of her love wrapping around him, he stepped into the hallway, waiting outside until he heard the scrape of the lock and chain.

As soon as his sneakers hit the cracked sidewalk in front of their building, he twisted his hat around backward and checked the time on the beat-up Timex on his wrist. The watch was his only possession from his father.

Dammit. I’m gonna have to book it.

He hurried the first couple blocks before ducking down an alley. The shortcut would save him five minutes if he hustled his ass. The boss at the distribution warehouse, as his pseudo employer liked to call the drug storehouse, was a real pendejo. He’d dock Omar’s pay if he was even a second late.

Omar jogged through the garbage-filled passage, splashing in a puddle of orange liquid he hoped was soda before popping out of the alley near a deserted parking lot and basketball court. One of the backboards gleamed in the weak moonlight, naked without its rim and net.

The warehouse loomed in the distance. Five minutes, tops.

If he hurried.

At the end of the parking lot, Omar darted into the last alley. His stride faltered when something clinked up ahead, like a glass bottle rolling along the asphalt. He slowed to a stop, heart pounding as he peered into the inky blackness. “Who’s there?”

Only the shadows stared back at him, empty and silent. Nothing stirred, not even a chilly late-night breeze drifting in from the river.

He stopped breathing, his ears scanning for the usual nighttime hum of the city. Cars honking. People arguing. Dogs barking.

The absolute quiet made Omar twitchy. A buddy in prison, one who’d loved to hunt in the wilderness, once told Omar dead silence meant a predator was prowling nearby. Hunting prey.

By habit, he reached for the big switchblade in his pocket. There was nothing there. Of course, there wasn’t. The weapon was from his pre-Ramon days.

A conversation with Lana from a few months ago replayed in his mind.

“You sure you don’t want to carry this, just in case?”

He laughed at the dinky little blade she offered him. “What am I supposed to do with that if someone jumps me, ask if they want me to file their nails?”

Lana rolled her eyes. “You need some sort of protection, but with your conviction, even your old hunting knife will put you back in the clink. This would be better than nothing.”

He shook his head. Knife or no knife, he was no one’s prey.

Scoffing at his own jumpiness, Omar resumed his trek down the dark alley. He’d only taken a few more steps when the shadows moved.

Irritation pricked his skin. He didn’t have time for this shit.

“Frido, I swear, if that’s you messing with me, I’m gonna bust your ass.”

No reply. Instead, a tall shape materialized before him, blending in with the shadows as if they were one. Darkness swirled around the advancing figure, so graceful that the form almost looked like it was floating.

A chill snaked down Omar’s back.

Floating, are you for real right now? Quit acting like a wuss.

“Who the hell are you?”

A ghostly moan was his only reply. Omar took an involuntary step back, wishing he’d taken Lana’s knife. A puny blade was better than none.

No blade didn’t mean he was defenseless, though. He’d done time. He could hold his own.

Omar’s fists curled. “I’ll tell you this one time. Turn around now and go about your business. Otherwise, we’re going to have trouble.”

The moaning turned into an eerie chanting. A sinister sound that shifted from a guttural hiss to an otherworldly wail and back again, repeating a single word.

“Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

Every hair raised on Omar’s body. Was this some dude high on drugs? Or a ghost? Either way, he wasn’t about to stick around to find out.

With a burst of adrenaline, Omar whirled and raced back the way he’d come. As he burst into the abandoned parking lot, the wailing grew closer, breathing down his neck.

Pumping his legs harder, he hit the first alley at a dead sprint, his shoes splashing through the orange mess on the ground. The pounding in his chest intensified.

Just a little farther now.

Up ahead, his apartment building came into view.

Lana, you were right! If I get home tonight, I’ll quit this job, I promise!

Omar was halfway there when a freight train slammed into him, and pain exploded in his shoulder as he smashed into the asphalt. Gasping, he tried to push to his feet, but the hooded figure crashed onto Omar’s chest. With an agility that blurred his vision, Omar’s attacker straddled his rib cage, pinning him between their legs.

Hot blood filled Omar’s mouth as his skull rammed into the ground.

Cold metal kissed his throat. He tried to focus on his attacker, but the hooded figure’s face remained hidden.

Think, Omar. Fight.

Before he could do either, pain exploded across Omar’s neck. Fear like he’d never known froze him in place, and he started to pray.

Please, let me live to see my Ramon grow into a man, and for me and Lana to buy that house we’ve always dreamed of, with the tire swing and a garden.

He swallowed hard, almost gagging on the salty warmth of his own blood. “Please…you don’t have to do this.”

The blade pressed harder.

Omar knew he only had seconds to live, and his thoughts focused in on his family. Lana, I love you. Tell Ramon I’m sorry. Give him my dad’s old watch when he’s older, if they find it with my body, to remember me.

He croaked out a single word. “Why?”

The figure bent low and growled into Omar’s ear, the stench of his breath filling his senses with a new type of hell.

“Guilty, guilty, guilty.”

Omar barely managed to scream as the knife slashed deep into his neck before plunging into his chest. Again and again the monster slashed, sending white-hot pain shooting through his body.

Lana! Ramon!

He clung to the vision of the two people he loved most in this world until the pain barreled him straight into the void, and he stopped thinking anything at all.

Chapter Two

Detective Ellie Kline gazed out the Explorer’s water-speckled windshield, watching the drizzle sink North Charleston into a puddle of melancholy. The Friday sky, suffocated with heavy gray clouds, was in that fuzzy period of early evening, though the sun wasn’t due to set for a couple more hours.

Unfortunately, even the rain couldn’t hide the red-and-blue lights flashing beyond the glass, signaling the dead body awaiting her.

Ellie remained behind the wheel of the parked SUV, unable to force herself to reach for the door just yet. She’d been looking forward to hanging out at home with her foster daughter, Bethany, after their session with Beth’s child psychiatrist. Instead of having a reprieve from killers and death, she’d received the surprise call from Lead Homicide Detective Rachel Stoddard, yanking her from suspension.

Stoddard. Ugh. Ellie was definitely not looking forward to seeing her boss here tonight.

It’s not like you put up a fight or anything, though. Your brand-new boss tells you to get your butt out to a crime scene, and what do you do? Jump to do her bidding. Why is that, huh?

Good question, considering the way Stoddard had gotten her suspended after their last case. Ever since Stoddard had taken over the detective division of the Charleston Police Department after her former boss, Harold Fortis, was murdered, she’d managed to make Ellie’s life miserable.

“But did you stay away when you had the chance? Nooo. Why? Because you’re a glutton for punishment.”

Or an addict needing a hit. Ellie wasn’t sure which explanation was worse. All she knew was that spending the evening with Bethany would have been way more rewarding than walking around in mud and rain and possibly blood.

Plus, Bethany needed her. The little girl had suffered so much already in her eight years on the planet. Being kidnapped from her mother at birth by her great-grandfather, the notorious sociopath Dr. Lawrence Kingsley. Bouncing from foster home to foster home. Finally getting reunited with her birth mother for a short period, only to be kidnapped by her great-grandfather again, an ordeal that ended with the child watching her birth mother bleed to death from Kingsley’s knife.

Just before she died, Ellie had made a silent vow to Bethany’s mother—Katarina Volkov, a wanted criminal in her own right—that she would take care of her daughter and keep her safe.

So far, the safe part seemed to be working out. In terms of parenting, though, Ellie had a lot to learn.

Ellie grabbed a can of soda from the cupholder and grimaced at the sugary taste. She’d wanted coffee, but the drive-thru line at Starbucks had practically been backed halfway to Johns Island, and her new boss wanted her at the crime scene as soon as possible.

Typical Stoddard, trying to screw up as much of Ellie’s life as possible.

Although…maybe blaming Stoddard for all her woes wasn’t entirely fair. Ellie made plenty of her own messes too. She’d all but thumbed her nose at the law when she’d snuck out to a potential suspect’s home in the middle of the night on a hunch that he was the Cupid Killer, poked around in his backyard, and used a lockpick kit to enter.

In Ellie’s defense, her somewhat impulsive actions had saved Tyson Leed from meeting a gruesome death. She’d never regret that. Or the fact that she’d apprehended a murderer.

No, the part that rattled her was just how easily she’d slipped over the line between law-abiding and law-breaking. She was skating on thin ice and had been ever since that last showdown with Kingsley.

The monster had first invaded her life at the tender age of fifteen, when he’d kidnapped her after she’d lied to meet a boy, and the date had gone wrong. She’d ended up walking home, and Kingsley had snatched her off the street and forced her to take part in a twisted, deadly game before she’d escaped.

He’d infiltrated her dreams—her nightmares—from that moment on, and his crime syndicate had plagued her time as a Charleston detective. Everything had come to a head back in January, just a few short months ago.

The aluminum bent beneath Ellie’s fingers. She eased her grip on the can, but the tension in her body wasn’t so easy to fix. Less than three months had passed since Kingsley had kidnapped her mother and Bethany and held them hostage at his childhood home. Less than three months since a bullet had finally ended Kingsley’s reign of terror.

There were moments when Ellie felt like the events had happened only days ago. Other times, she was certain a lifetime had passed.

All she knew for sure was that the healing she’d hoped to experience after Kingsley’s death hadn’t happened yet. More like the opposite, in fact.

Lying to her superiors, defying orders, breaking the law? Angry outbursts and weird, moody spells she couldn’t control? Freezing with fear at the most inopportune moments when she used to charge right in?

Was she losing herself? Was part of the old Ellie already gone?

So no, between the residue of Kingsley’s sick machinations coating her brain like an unwanted parting gift, fumbling through the challenge of instant motherhood to a traumatized little girl, and her own emotional instability and shaky confidence, Ellie couldn’t shove all the blame for her current chaos onto Detective Stoddard’s annoyingly stiff shoulders.

“Maybe fifty percent, though,” she muttered. “Things were fine before you showed up.”

Maybe not fine, but better.

Ellie’s heart clenched as her mind shifted to Fortis, her old boss who’d been found dead in his car outside the precinct. Another notch in Kingsley’s belt. They hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but Ellie had respected him, both as a man and a detective.

And if he were here, he’d be hauling you into his office and demanding to know what the hell you were doing. He’d remind you of your oath to uphold the law while asking if you really wanted to be the kind of detective who catered to the belief that the end justified the means.

Wincing, she tipped back the can and sucked down the remaining liquid. No, Fortis wouldn’t approve of her recent conduct. Her boyfriend didn’t either. Clay Lockwood loved her, but he was a by-the-book FBI guy. Clay’s strong sense of justice and ethics were one of the things Ellie loved most about him.

Would he continue to love Ellie if her own ethics continued this slow slide into the muck?

Rap rap rap.

“Detective Kline?” Rachel Stoddard frowned. “You coming to look at this body or not?”

Ellie jumped in her seat, tossing the empty soda can onto the passenger’s side floorboard and choking herself momentarily with the seat belt.

How long had she been sitting in her SUV, staring at the police lights in the rain? She unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door, holding a newspaper above her head as a makeshift umbrella, cursing herself for forgetting to put it back into her vehicle after the last rain.

Stoddard was already taking off in the direction of a small dog park, her white sneakers peeking out beneath the legs of her navy slacks as she squelched through the gathering puddles. In the distance, run-down apartment buildings huddled together, mere shells of the original structures.

Ellie scurried after her boss as they passed the dog park and headed toward the bank of the Cooper River. “Do we know anything about the victim?”

“Adult male. Knife wounds and slit throat.” As she walked, Stoddard glanced back and yelled over the patter of rain hitting Ellie’s newspaper. “First guess is it’s gang related. Drugs. Lots of gangbangers in this area.”

Ellie mentally cringed. Yes, the area was crappy, but she despised it when people assumed that meant the area’s residents were crappy as well. “Maybe we should hold off on assuming until we have more info. What do we know about the crime that isn’t speculation?”

The lead detective stopped and turned around to glare. Despite wearing a rain poncho, Stoddard still managed to get drenched. Rain beaded in her dark hair, which was pulled back into the usual severe bun, and dripped off her ears. The water had to be an annoyance, but she didn’t make a move to swipe the moisture off her face, as if she believed that might be a show of weakness. “Male. Knife wounds. Slit throat.”

Ellie nodded but rolled her eyes as soon as the detective’s back was turned, her posture as upright and stiff as if she were still in the Marines. So rigid that Ellie wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that a military surgeon had replaced all of Stoddard’s bones and vertebrae with steel rods.

God, why hadn’t she ignored Stoddard’s call? They’d interacted for what, a minute now? Two, tops? Yet her boss was already dismissing Ellie’s observations.

Why did she do this to herself?

Wealthy beyond belief, she could be home right now, curled under a blanket with Bethany on the couch, giggling at superhero antics on TV. Instead, she was standing here like a damned waterlogged porcupine, hackles up and growing soggier by the second.

Even as she listed all the things she could be doing right now, she flashed her credentials at a uniformed officer, signed into the logbook, and ducked under the yellow tape. The river, flooded with recent rain, churned before them, and as much as she hated to admit it, this was exactly where she needed to be.

Exactly where she was meant to be.

Dammit.

After a few steps, Ellie stopped short. The newspaper fell to her side, but she barely noticed the cool April rain drenching her with a new intensity.

Grisly couldn’t begin to describe the scene in front of her.

She closed her eyes to escape the image, trying to silence the voice screaming in the back of her mind.

Death is everywhere you go.

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Cold Judgment by Mary Stone and Donna Berdel

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