A silver bell chimed as the glass door swung open, and Maggie Lyndell immediately turned at the sound, flashing a bright smile in its direction. Night winds rushed inside and wrapped around Maggie like a warm sheet pulled fresh from the dryer.
After three years of working at Dora’s Diner, she often joked she’d been conditioned to respond to that bell like one of Pavlov’s dogs running for its dinner. She didn’t mind. Hanging out with the regulars was one of her favorite parts of the job.
Maggie straightened her snug blue-and-white uniform as she recognized the approaching customer. Doug Kemp.
Standing at five-five, he was a curious blend of spindly limbs and a prominent belly, somewhat reminiscent of a bullfrog walking on hind feet. His curly brown hair always looked dry, and he often wore orange-and-mustard-colored clothes, especially golf shirts, corduroys, and striped button-downs. He was a nice enough guy, and he always tipped well, especially when she was friendly.
She amped up the voltage, shooting him the best smile she could manage. “Hey, Doug. Good to see you.” Maggie twirled a blond curl around her finger as she walked him to his usual table. He mumbled a few pleasantries as he slid into the burgundy booth.
Glancing at the kitchen window, she met the cook’s gaze. Guillermo crouched to see who she’d just seated and gave a thumbs-up.
At six-four and three hundred and fifty pounds, he constantly had to hunch, duck, and squeeze to do his job in the cramped kitchen. Nevertheless, Guillermo moved through the obstacle course with surprising ease.
Bryan Adams faded over the radio and “Carry on Wayward Son” struck up for only the second time that night. Maggie hummed along as Doug unwrapped the cloth napkin from his knife and fork and placed it neatly in his lap. “Can I get egg substitute on rye with—”
“Vegan sausage patties? And a cup of Earl Grey?”
Doug shifted, appearing uncomfortable. There was evidence of a downy mustache on his upper lip, but he was in his mid-thirties, at least. The sort of man whose beard would never come in completely, even if he lived to be a hundred. “Am I so predictable?”
“As the tide. That’s why we love you.” Maggie giggled and touched his shoulder. He had no outward reaction—neither melting into her touch nor shrugging it away—but as with so many men, Maggie knew a single shoulder touch could make her tip go up as much as fifty percent.
No harm in letting him imagine.
“How were things at the site today?” Maggie grabbed a clean glass and a pitcher from a nearby station and poured him a cup of water. “You can’t still be working at this hour.”
Setting the glass down, she glanced out the window where streetlamps cast puddles of light on the concrete. She wished she could see the stars instead. It seemed like years since the last time she went stargazing. It’d only been a few months ago that she and Bobby drove out to the desert and lay on the hood of his truck to watch the meteor shower.
Everything reminded her of her ex—even the stars she couldn’t see. She resented that. The son of a bitch wasn’t dead. Just dead to her.
When Doug grumbled, Maggie realized she’d asked him a question without listening to the answer. She refocused her attention on him and tried to forget Bobby.
Doug had been coming into the diner two or three times a week for about a month now. He was an architect or something, in town from Alabama to oversee the construction of a new four-star hotel in downtown Bowe City.
Somebody with a less keen eye might’ve been fooled, but Maggie felt certain Doug had a lot of money, not only because he often left her fifty dollars for a cup of tea and two vegan sausage patties.
Money talks. Wealth whispers. That was what her grandmother used to say.
“How are you doing?” Doug offered a pleasant smile. He had a faint lisp, almost unnoticeable, and small hands that fiddled with his napkin. “Last time I was in here, it looked like you were having a bit of an argument.”
Maggie’s breath caught, and she almost lost her smile. His words left a sting in her eyes. She couldn’t believe she still had tears left for Bobby.
Only a few days had passed since that night, so the memory was still fresh in her mind. “I forgot you were there. I’m so sorry about that.”
“That’s okay.” Doug’s pale blue eyes softened. “Do you mind if I ask who was being so rough with you? I hope he was picked up by the authorities.”
Maggie twiddled the strings on her apron. “That was just my boyfriend, Bobby.”
My boyfriend… The words cut deep like a knife in her gut.
“Ex. Ex-boyfriend. I broke up with him earlier that day. That’s why he came into my work to yell at me and humiliate me in front of my customers.”
Doug’s expression conveyed genuine sympathy. “The only person he humiliated was himself.”
She glanced down and nodded, still trying to recover from the secondhand embarrassment. “I’d been dating him for two years and that ain’t the first time he’s done
something like that. Possessive, drunken, self-absorbed sack of shit.”
Doug chuckled. “Tell me how you really feel.”
Horrified, Maggie clamped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s okay. From what little I saw, that sounds like a good description of him.” He flashed her that soft smile again, and his eyes focused on her in a way that made her feel seen.
The tension she was holding in her shoulders slipped away. She rested a hip against the edge of the table. “How come I can never find a decent man?”
“Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.”
She scoffed and flipped her hair, feigning offense. “Where do you think I should look?”
Doug didn’t answer for a moment. She took a deep breath and got a whiff of his subtle cologne—woody and musky and nothing at all like Bobby. She gradually lifted her eyes to his, and he smiled.
“Right under your nose.”
Maggie stilled. Who’d have thought Doug Kemp would have any game?
It was too bad his earnest flirtation left a hollow feeling in her stomach.
“You deserve better. If you were my girl, I would look after you the way you deserve.”
Maggie struggled for words. Across the diner, a customer signaled for the check. She mentally thanked the universe for the bailout and shot Doug one last tight smile before walking away.
She wasn’t sure if she was creeped out or not. Doug probably had ten years on her and he wasn’t attractive. But Maggie felt like she should be flattered because he was sweet. And respectful. With a good job.
Nothing like Bobby.
She went in the back and finished her cleanup work, prepping for the next server. Her swing shift was over at ten, but Wendy had come in early tonight. Though Maggie needed every tip she could get, she let Wendy take over her tables anyway. Innocent shoulder touching was one thing, but now that Doug had actually taken a shot, she didn’t want to be anywhere near him.
No need to give him false hope.
It was decided. She didn’t have the energy for it tonight. She needed to think and be alone. Maybe forever.
As she was about to head out, Maggie stopped to say goodbye to Guillermo.
“You want me to walk you to your car?” he asked as he tossed a hunk of meat on the cooktop.
Maggie waved him off. “Nah, it’s not that late.”
“You ain’t worried about Bobby no more?”
Was she ever not worried about Bobby? Her ex was inconsistent, running hot one moment and ice-cold the next. But she didn’t want to bother Guillermo with her relationship bullshit now. “Nah.”
“Okay. But what about that guy?” Guillermo lifted his spatula and pointed at Doug. “Mister Fake Eggs on Rye.”
“Doug?” Maggie giggled and shook her head. “He’s harmless. Actually kind of sweet.”
“Oh, hermosa, Bobby must’ve cut you deep if you’re thinking of rebounding with someone like him. You can do much better.” He stacked several plates in the window and rang the bell. “Table six!”
Maggie stepped away to let Wendy run the order and slipped out the back door. A quiet night greeted her. The air was still humid from an earlier evening rain, and lightning brightened the sky, promising another storm was brewing.
She paused beside the dumpster and fumbled through her purse for her vape. The thing was a damn escape artist. She crouched and emptied her purse onto the damp concrete.
“Dammit.” Maggie packed everything back into her bag. Maybe she had another one in her car.
Straightening, she started across the lot. She was halfway to where she’d parked—clear across the lot under the acacia trees—when a shadow emerged from behind a souped-up truck.
As the rhythm of her steps halted, she clutched her keys.
“Hey, Maggie.” A man stepped into the flickering halo of a streetlamp. She recognized the orange-and-mustard-colored stripes even in the dim light.
“Doug.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “You startled me.”
“I’m sorry. I was just headed to my car when I saw you.” His lips lifted into another easy smile, but the way the shadows caressed his face sharpened its edges. “Any chance I could talk you into joining me for a drink?”
Her stomach tightened. She should’ve known this was coming. Part of her even wanted to go with him. It was Friday night, after all.
But when she closed her eyes, all she could see was Bobby. She’d made it through another day, staying busy to keep him out of her mind, and now she was worn out. She wanted to go home, take a hot shower, and finish the bag of potato chips she’d opened the night before.
“No, not tonight. I’m exhausted. And don’t you have food coming?”
“Maybe another time?” He lifted his chin into the light, ignoring her question. “Can I get your number?”
She pulled her phone out, unlocked it, and held it out to him. “Give me yours.”
“Okay.” He took the device and tapped the screen.
She lifted her hand higher, silently asking for it back.
He held the phone up and shot her a mischievous grin. As soon as she went for it, he yanked it out of reach. “You want it? Come get a drink with me.”
A horrible chill raced down Maggie’s spine. This was one of those times when her mother and sisters would’ve moaned that all men were exactly the same, but they were wrong.
The ones who pretended to be nice and normal were always the worst.
Maggie steeled her expression. Doug had played cute on the wrong freakin’ night. “That’s not funny. Give me my phone.”
“Sure, I will.” He hopped from one foot to another playfully, hiding the phone behind his back. “After you agree to go out with me.”
“Doug, give me my phone.”
“Nuh-uh.” He danced away behind a big truck in the center of the parking lot.
“Dammit!” Maggie ran after him.
She sped around the corner of the truck and stopped abruptly. There was Doug. His left hand was extended, her phone in his palm.
“Okay, catch your breath.” His apologetic smile was lit by another burst of lightning.
“You know, this was a real jerk move.” She reached for the device.
In the second it took her to lean in, she knew she’d made a terrible mistake. Doug’s expression shifted as quickly as the syringe he was holding plunged into her arm.
The sharpness bit into her. He pushed down.
Maggie reached for the needle sticking out of her arm even as she tried to scream, but a wave of dizziness rushed over her. Like standing up too fast, but a thousand times worse. Her legs went numb, and she fell hard, smashing her head on the concrete.
A warm thick liquid ran into her eye, and she tried to blink it away. Just like the rest of her, her eyelids moved slowly.
The last things she perceived were soft, pale hands reaching through the shadows, the thunder gathering in the heavens, and the first raindrops of a storm. Then unconsciousness claimed her.
Detective Justice Hall opened his eyes into the nearly scalding water. The burning torrent filling his eyelids singed his nerves so much that he could only see stars.
That was the point.
He’d picked up the habit of nearly blinding himself in the shower when he was nine years old—in the rare instances his captor allowed him to bathe. Now he was in control. He could take three showers in a single morning if he wanted to. No one could tell him otherwise.
And he had. The first one had washed away the unholy combination of coagulating blood and grime before he fell into his bed for a couple hours of sleep. This
shower, though, had a different purpose. It was to calm him down.
All this anxiety over a friggin’ missed call.
An annoying chirpy tune echoed through his bathroom.
Justice tensed before stepping out of the hot stream and wiping the water from his eyes. Through the glass doors, he watched the old-school flip phone buzzing and ringing on the counter next to his sink, right where he’d placed it. It might as well have been a bomb.
The flip phone belonged to Abraham “Scorpion” Kane, the main enforcer for the Syndicate, the criminal biker gang that controlled the drug trade in Elmaeder County. But Abe wasn’t a standard gangbanger goon.
He was a bona fide serial killer.
Over the course of eleven years, Scorpion had slaughtered at least seven innocent people in the maze of death he’d lovingly constructed in the salvage yard he owned and operated.
It was screwed up how some people got their kicks.
A little more than six hours ago, Justice had ended Abe Kane’s reign of terror. They’d fought amid the deadly booby traps Scorpion installed on his property. Now only one of them was still alive to take a shower. Justice had made sure of that.
Afterward, Justice found the bodies of Abe’s victims stacked in a storm cellar. He’d left them there to be discovered by the proper authorities—which, in this case, could not be him. None of his colleagues at the Elmaeder County Sheriff’s Office knew that Abe Kane was Scorpion. Justice himself only knew Scorpion’s real identity through his own extra-legal methods. He’d wanted to take care of Scorpion personally.
To ensure the bodies in the storm cellar would be found, Justice burned Abe’s house and salvage yard to the ground. It was all part of his plan.
If his calculations were correct, he’d soon get the call from Sheriff Eliza Galvez to investigate the very crime scene he’d created.
Abe deserved to die. Justice knew he’d killed at least one person whose body would not be found with the others—a young addict named Karl Boyle, beaten and burned alive in his own apartment a mere two days ago. And though he couldn’t prove it yet, Justice was sure Abe had ended the lives of many more victims on the say-so of his older brother, Ben Kane, the self-styled president of the Syndicate.
But that wasn’t all. Scorpion was the one who sold the fentanyl-like drug—street name Pinecones—that had almost killed Detective Henry Carlson’s little sister, Regina.
He was also the one who had smiled in ecstasy when he realized Justice had come to kill him.
And I did.
Justice turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. As he dried off and picked up the now-quiet phone, he had a sinking feeling—a kind of miserable déjà vu. He opened the phone and read the display.
Missed call from El Jefe.
El Jefe. The boss. This was the second time he’d called—the first was what had sent Justice back to the shower to relax.
Whatever he wants, it must be urgent.
Justice jumped when the phone began to ring and vibrate again for the third time that morning.
His thumb hovered over the answer key.
He took the call with a low, gravelly grunt, mimicking the man he’d killed earlier that morning.
“Scorpion, I need your numbers for the next shipment.” The man’s voice was tight and clipped, a young-sounding tenor with no patience.
Justice grunted again, hoping it came across as if he was thinking.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” El Jefe asked.
Justice stayed silent.
“I have two hundred thousand pills. I need to know how many you want.”
“Scorpion?” The man grumbled and cursed. “I can hear you breathing, you dumb son of a bitch. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you, but if you don’t get me your numbers by the end of the day, you and your customers are on your own. I have plenty of guys lined up to buy my stuff. I don’t need you or your brother.”
When the call went dead, Justice pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it. El Jefe, huh? He’d thought Ben Kane was Scorpion’s boss. But now it seemed like there was another.
Who the heck is El Jefe?
As Justice dried the rest of his body off, every inch of him hurt. The fight he’d had with Scorpion six hours ago was the second altercation he’d had with the serial killer in the past day. Justice’s head pounded from a nasty wound.
With slight hesitation, Justice rubbed the condensation away from his fogged-up mirror that was still cracked from when he’d punched it in frustration. Making a mental note to buy a new one, he took stock of his injuries. Two black eyes, and his lips were fat, chapped, and blood-speckled. The butterfly bandage still covered his broken nose from when Scorpion had headbutted him in the face. Twice.
No…three times now. Twice during their first encounter and again in the scrapyard.
He’d also picked up some minor cuts and burns pulling Karl from a building that Scorpion had set on fire. Plus, there was the matter of his scabby knuckles, but that was his own damn fault. Scorpion hadn’t made him fistfight a tree. And punching his own bathroom mirror—okay, yes, that one was on him too.
It was a wonder Justice’s personal veterinarian hadn’t run away in sheer fright when she’d arrived with her special delivery earlier that morning.
Worst of all, his balls freakin’ ached from where Scorpion had delivered that cheap shot.
No dude should do that to another dude. Serial killer or no, it goes against the code.
Pondering the question of the identity of El Jefe, Justice wrapped a bathrobe around himself. He slid his phone into his pocket and walked outside to one of the fenced-in pastures on his land. Max lumbered to his feet and scrabbled up the fence when he saw him, his slobbery tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
Next to his big, lumpy, senior citizen of a pit bull was an adorable nine-month-old golden retriever. Just watching Laika lumber closer in his custom wheelchair soothed some of Justice’s distress.
“How’re ya doin’, you two?”
Max’s thick head nudged into Justice’s palm, demanding a scratch while Laika seemed to be working up the courage to get closer. Justice sat on the ground but didn’t rush the pup.
One step. Two. Three, and Laika was close enough to touch. Another step, and the dog’s soft fur was against his hand.
Dogs are so damn forgiving. I’m not.
Laika’s eyes rolled back when Justice scratched behind his ears.
“That good, huh?”
Justice had happily volunteered to adopt the pup after Scorpion killed his original owner, Luca Gaspar, three days ago. Dr. Amy Horvath had dropped Laika off at his ranch early this morning, waking him up from his two hours of “sleep.” The early start to the day wasn’t unusual. On days when his face wasn’t bashed to a bloody pulp, he liked to get up before the sun rose.
A deep and heavy thunder sounded in the sky, and it began to rain. Laika whined and looked up at Justice with eyes both sad and confused. The puppy’s distress was understandable. He had a new owner, a new home, and two broken hind legs, all courtesy of Scorpion.
Over the past couple days, while Justice was settling the score with Scorpion both officially and unofficially, Dr. Horvath had outfitted Laika with a little doggy wheelchair. She told Justice that Laika loved the apparatus so much he cried every time she made him take it off.
Justice pushed to his feet. “It’s okay, boy. We can go inside.”
Just as Justice started to reach out a hand to comfort Laika again, Max got there first, nuzzling his new little brother until the younger dog stopped whining. Justice couldn’t help smiling, even when the movement hurt his lips.
This is my family.
The final member of his growing herd was a five-year-old bay mare named Nicki. She was at the far end of the pasture, grazing the fields.
Calling her over, Justice walked her toward the barn to wait out the storm. With his two pups on his heels, he went back to the house. He might as well use his time wisely before he was inevitably called in to investigate what he already knew happened at Abe Kane’s salvage yard.
Once he settled into his office, Justice plugged Scorpion’s phone into his laptop and downloaded everything.
He scanned through all the texts. There were thousands of pages’ worth of incriminating evidence—everything that would be needed to connect Scorpion to the Syndicate and connect the Syndicate to the sale of Pinecones.
What it didn’t tell him, however, was the identity of El Jefe. It would take weeks to do a close read of all the material, but a keyword search turned up nothing on the name of the mysterious caller.
Justice looked at the phone in his hand. I could keep it, see if El Jefe calls back. Do more of my Scorpion impersonation.
“Don’t be stupid.” He reached for a tiny black device in his desk drawer. It had several charger attachments—iPhone, Android, etc.—but otherwise, it just looked like a black USB stick. “You can’t keep it, you idiot. It’s just a matter of time until Sheriff Galvez finds Scorpion decapitated on one of his own booby traps, not to mention all the bodies in his storm cellar.”
And you were there. What if she finds out?
His hands shook as he plugged the device into Scorpion’s phone and turned it on. “One epic mystery at a time.”
He didn’t know exactly how the device worked. His certifiable genius hacker friend from his Army days had given it to him for Christmas last year. Wes called it a burn switch. It destroyed all memory on a device, rendering it completely useless and making all the information it once contained irrecoverable.
A little light on the switch flickered blue. It was done.
Justice carried Scorpion’s phone outside, down the steps of his porch, and over to the firepit, glad the rain had let up enough for this. He piled logs into the pit and doused them with lighter fluid before striking a match. Without a second of hesitation, he threw the phone into the flames.
He’d have to discover El Jefe’s identity the old-fashioned way.
As he watched the old phone burn, the one in his pocket buzzed. He slid the device out and glanced at the screen. It was ten a.m. Galvez had apparently found the bodies.
Groaning a little—he’d been hoping she’d find them at around noon or one so he could get back in bed for a bit more rest—Justice settled his mind for the conversation. He hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in what felt like years, but he couldn’t sound that way with his boss.
Just as he worked up the pep to convince her all was well, his phone stopped ringing.
He gazed out over his porch onto the quiet of the ranch, his gaze landing on the apple tree near the edge of the back garden. Its healthy limbs clawed for the
Scorpion wasn’t the only one hiding bodies on his property…
Another wave of anxiety rolled through him.
There’s no reason to be scared.
While he might have left behind some trace of himself at the scene, or brought some of the scene with him, nobody was going to be looking for that.
Besides, Elmaeder’s Sheriff’s Office kept a record of their deputies’ DNA for disqualification purposes. He’d just have to make sure that—when he arrived at Scorpion’s wrecking yard, seemingly for the first time—he covered the same ground that he had hours before.
Everything was fine. There was no way he’d be tied back to that scene. The killer had died in one of his own traps. Simple as that.
“Just be normal.” Justice rubbed the back of his sweaty neck as he dialed Galvez’s number. He knew how to act normal. He’d been studying all his life for this role.
Sheriff Galvez answered on the second ring.
“Justice.” Her voice came quick and loud, shouting over what sounded like wind and sirens. “I know I said you could have the day off, but I need you to come in. I hope you’ve recovered.”
Recovered was an interesting word choice. As he thought back to their last exchange, heat burned his cheeks. Eliza had chewed his ass for dragging Henry along on a side mission to confront Scorpion.
As a result of Justice’s recklessness, Henry had been shot.
His partner was really messed up, recovering at Saint Claire’s Hospital. Justice knew that, no matter how he looked, Henry would never be the same.
And neither would Justice. Guilt that deep was impossible to erase.
“Sure, I’m recovered.” Justice reached into his pocket and palmed his iolite worry stone. “What’s up?”
“Fire at some salvage yard out in the boonies. The neighbor called the fire department and they rushed to the scene and put it out, but it’s what they found after the dust settled…” She took a deep breath, as if to brace herself.
Oof. Justice’s plan had worked entirely too quickly for his liking.
“Eight bodies were found at the scene. One is most likely Luca Gaspar, the burglary victim from a few days ago who—”
“Yes, and others in worse states of decomposition.”
“Well, dang.” Justice couldn’t decide if he wanted to rush to the scene or try to convince the sheriff he really needed the rest of the day to “recover.”
What would a normal detective who hadn’t committed arson six hours ago do?
His partner was in the hospital thanks to a bullet in his neck. Would a normal detective want time off right now, or would he need to dive right back in?
And how about an extraordinary detective who was absolutely indispensable to his boss and the department? The kind of detective he both wanted and needed to be. How would he act?
“I just texted you the address.” Galvez’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “I need you down here, now.”
The tone in her voice answered all his questions. She needed him. She relied on him. He’d been working Homicide for all of four weeks, yet he’d already convinced her he was indispensable.
Single-handedly catching the most famous serial killer in the history of Elmaeder County—the notorious da Vinci—would get you that rep. If only Eliza knew how many serial killers he’d really caught.
He glanced at the apple tree again.
Getting people to like him took work. He deployed confidence and charm to make them recognize his competence. But it was worth the effort of cultivating the social skills that most people came by naturally. Justice had learned early that keeping people around him happy was the difference between reward and punishment, between a happy life and a miserable existence wreathed in darkness.
Justin Black had taught him that when they were on the road together, right after he murdered Justice’s entire family.
Justice—known as Tim back then—was only eight years old when he watched his parents and sister die.
“The dispensable must be dispensed,” Justin used to say when Justice failed to anticipate his needs or respond to his orders quickly enough. “So be sure to make yourself indispensable.”
Justice straightened and focused on the present. “Yes, Sheriff. I’m on my way.”
He ended the call and stared at the blank screen. Sheriff Galvez didn’t know. She’d never know. Not if he had any control over the situation.
Justice ran his fingers through his hair. But there’s one person who might know…Alison Edgar. Farm worker, drug addict, vagrant. The young woman whose timid, bright-blue eyes haunted Justice.
He’d been wearing a balaclava when he saw her, but Scorpion had later ripped it off. What if Alison had been watching from the shadows behind the tree line, listening, learning all his secrets?
He wasn’t even sure if she’d survived. It was possible she’d run into one of Scorpion’s many booby traps as she tried to escape through the woods.
But Justice didn’t believe that. If something had happened to Alison, he would’ve known it. He could feel her.
She was still alive. And he had to find her.
There’s a fine line between justice and murder.
The more lowlifes Deputy Justice Hall kills, the easier it gets. What’s not so easy? Investigating his own crime scene. That’s a challenge he never anticipated, especially since his colleagues at the Elmaeder County Sheriff’s Office can never know that he sometimes replaces his badge with a judge’s gavel.
And an executioner’s hood.
They also can’t discover that the last man Justice killed is part of a group called the Syndicate, a gang responsible for selling a deadly drug known as Pinecones. That’s because he’s tracking down the Syndicate’s mastermind so he can deliver his own special brand of justice… Read More