The night before…
Cameron Wilding woke to the foul taste of whiskey, stale fries, and sex. As his eyelids fluttered, the canopy of the tent came into focus. The last time it rained, the pounding water had punched tiny holes in the paper-thin canvas, which meant that next time, he and Dusty would both get soaked.
The thought made his stomach churn. He couldn’t let that happen. It was mid-June, so the cold wasn’t a concern, but the prospect of mold and abject misery loomed large, independent of the weather. He could fix the tent, but…
What he needed was to get himself and Dusty out of this hellhole.
Cameron rolled his head to the side, wiggling his dry tongue over his even drier palate to bring life back to his throat. Dusty Lee lay beside him, looking peaceful as the pale moonlight caressed his cheeks, his beautiful dark hair curled around the edges of his face, his forehead dotted with sweat. He held a lit cigarette between two fingers, his hand resting on his chest.
“What are you staring at?” Dusty cracked a smile, refusing to open his eyes.
Cameron chuckled, and the sound came out unexpectedly sweet. For days, he had been out of sorts. And it was all on account of the devil.
Twice now, he’d seen the man with the long, slender gun. The first time was when he turned a corner into an alley to answer the call of nature. There, the dark figure was waiting for him. Tall and lean and dressed in black, he had the face of a devil. But not just any devil—a classic 1950s cartoon red devil, complete with a pointy goatee.
Drunk and still foggy from a hit of Pinecones, Cameron swore his mind was playing tricks on him. When the devil raised his slender gun, Cameron screamed and ran away. He kept going until he tripped over his feet, shouting, “The devil! The devil!”
But that wasn’t such a strange occurrence by the standards of the homeless encampment, which encircled the defunct Loveland train station on the east side of the downtown Bowe City—the makeshift madhouse where Cameron had lived, on and off, for almost three years now. Nobody paid attention to his wild cries. Nobody but Dusty.
The second time, the devil went in for the kill. Cameron only narrowly escaped when, once again, the man in the devil mask had jumped out at him from around a corner and grabbed him so hard, he still had bruises on his arms from the struggle.
A rough fingertip brushed Cameron’s cheek, startling him back into the moment.
“You’re gone again.” His chocolate-colored eyes brimming with concern, Dusty ran his thumb along Cameron’s jaw. “Where are you?”
Cameron plucked the cigarette from Dusty’s fingers and took a drag. “The devil…”
Dusty exhaled sharply. “You talked to the police, told them everything. What else do you want to do?”
Cameron shrugged. He had talked to the police—a tall, skinny cowboy with a big, off-white hat called Detective Hall. That alone had taken a lot of courage, given the general feeling toward law enforcement around the camp. But when he was with the detective, studying his all-too-official face, Cameron accidentally left out a few important details. Like that he was high as a kite on Pinecones at the time.
He wanted Detective Hall to take the threat seriously, so he refused to give the man any reason to dismiss his story as the ravings of a drug-addicted lunatic. After all, wasn’t that what the cops thought—that all homeless people were addicts?
Cameron sat up. The top of his hair brushed the canvas as his stomach lurched and the room spun. The whiskey was still in his blood as well as on his breath. “What the hell are we still doing here? We don’t belong here. And if we stay…” He swallowed hard. “If we stay…”
The words caught in his throat.
Dusty sat up and set a hand on his shoulder. “Cam, it’s okay. Take it easy.”
“I can’t take it easy. There’s a psycho out there with a damn dart gun trying to hunt me down. With a dart gun, he’s not just shooting people. He’s probably got way worse plans. And I don’t know why he’s after me.”
“Look, I’m scared too. If you want, we can pack up and walk right now.”
“And go where? There’s nowhere else in the Bowe City area they’ll let you pitch a tent anymore. Not with Mayor fuckin’ Brad Lewis working so hard to clean up the city.”
Dusty drummed his fingers on Cameron’s shoulder like he always did when he was brainstorming an idea. “There’s always your mom. She’d help.”
Cameron groaned inwardly. “Yeah, as long as we lie about it and hide it from my father.”
“That’s a hell of a lot more than anybody else will do.”
Cameron peered through the holes in the dirty canvas, wincing as painful memories stirred in his mind. A thousand times his father had treated him like a monster while his mother stood by, letting it happen. Because that was her role—to be obedient.
The thought of asking her for help was like choking down a cup full of thumbtacks. “I’m too drunk. I could never see her like this.”
“Who has to see her? You text her, tell her we need to get out of where we are, ask her for some cash so we can get a place to stay…”
Cameron gritted his teeth. “I can’t work my mom for money. I won’t.”
“I know, and I respect you for that. But this is different. A man is trying to kill you.” Dusty lowered his gaze, his eyes darkening in the shadows. “We have to keep you safe. If that means swallowing every bit of pride we’ve ever had, accepting help from people we hate, or sleeping out under the stars for the rest of our lives, then that’s what we’ll do. As long as we’re together, we can make it through.”
Tears welled in Cameron’s eyes, and he hugged his boyfriend, his heart filling with gratitude like it always did when Dusty talked sense into him. “We won’t be on the streets forever. I promise.”
Dusty smiled. “I know.”
With a renewed sense of hope, Cameron searched for his phone, determined to get ahold of his mom before he lost his nerve. He patted his pockets, remembering he’d forgotten to bring his cell phone back to the tent. “Shit. I left my Obama phone at the ’cones circle. I’ll go get it.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“I won’t be anywhere the devil might be. I’m walking straight down the middle of camp. Besides,” Cameron grabbed Dusty by the chin, “you’re naked.”
He pecked his lips and crawled out of the tent. Maybe it was risky, but Cameron could feel his nerve slipping away by the minute. He needed to write to his mom in the next sixty seconds, or he never would.
Cameron jogged toward a group of people huddled together smoking Pinecones, using their bodies to block the wind that kept putting out their lighter. He smiled at the warm, sweet breeze—the embodiment of summer nights in Texas.
You and Dusty are going to get out of here, just like you’ve always talked about. This is your chance to get your shit together, get off the drugs, and off the street.
He was only nineteen, but for a long time now, Cameron had felt like an old man. Meeting Dusty had reminded him that life could be enjoyable. Now he wondered if maybe life could even be good. Ironically, this was all because of the devil, who reminded him how much he had to lose.
Cameron darted into the circle of Pinecone smokers.
“Look who’s back. You forgot this.” Rayla smiled, high and therefore happy, and nodded toward his cheap, government-handout phone.
He snatched it up.
Rayla didn’t have teeth anymore, and her skin held the texture of untanned leather. When Cameron found out she was only thirty-six, he’d choked on his disbelief. She looked at least sixty.
She lifted the glass bulb toward Cameron, a friendly offer.
Only an hour ago, that unique scent of pine mixed with chemicals would’ve been enticing. Now, combined with Rayla’s toothless grin, it formed a warning.
Run. Now. Run from this place like the devil is chasing you.
“Nah, thanks.” Cameron waved her off and dashed out of the circle as quickly as he came.
He started back toward the tent but paused a few yards away and rested his back against a brick wall. It was very late—or early, depending on one’s perspective. Most people had gone to sleep, and only a faint murmur of voices drifted through the camp.
Pulling up his mother’s number, he scrolled through the dozens of texts she’d sent him over the last three years—asking him to come home, telling him how God loved him no matter what, and keeping him up to date on what was happening with the family.
In three years, he hadn’t replied. She kept writing. The most recent was from about a month ago.
There are so many important things I need to tell you. Please don’t make me write them in a text message.
A tear formed in Cameron’s eye that he didn’t try to hide. This was usually when he remembered his father, and the suffering he endured from his father’s hands, and the long-burning hatred he felt toward the woman who let it happen. But not tonight. Tonight, he typed out a message that had been building inside him for years.
I’m not sorry for who I am, and I will never change. But I miss you. And I need your help.
He shoved the phone in his pocket, gazed up at the sky, and took a deep breath. Though he was still drunk, his head was no longer spinning. He felt clearer than he had in years.
Bright, twinkling stars winked back at him.
Just as he peeled away from the wall, something sharp hit his neck. On instinct, Cameron’s hand flew to the source of pain. His fingers wrapped around a dart with a feathered tip. He yanked it out.
He knew what that meant.
Eyes widening, he stumbled, his heart thrashing in his chest. He whirled around and stood face-to-face with his greatest fear.
The devil dressed in black, clutching his long, merciless weapon.
Cameron turned to run. Only, he couldn’t. His muscles refused to move, and a scream died in his throat. As he fought to stay upright, his legs trembled before he collapsed into a heap on the ground.
Everything turned heavy all at once. Struggling against his own bones that weighed like concrete, he channeled all his energy into screaming. Drool snaked down one side of his face, but no sound came out.
The devil stalked closer and closer, slow and confident, like a hunter closing in on prey.
Trapped in his own body, Cameron watched helplessly. The devil took a knee beside him, cocking his grotesque mask to one side. He grabbed Cameron’s arm and lifted it, causing a stinging tingle to radiate from his shoulder to his palm. Cameron fought to yank it free, but the devil dropped it. The limb thumped painfully to the ground.
Paralyzed, but not numb.
Cameron choked on his spit, his tongue a useless weight in his mouth. He tried to speak, but nothing came out.
“Cat got your tongue?”
The devil’s voice was nothing like Cameron expected. Not gravelly or strange. Not menacing or deep. He sounded like a white dude who sold insurance in a nice suburb of Omaha.
Slinging his dart gun over his shoulder, the devil hoisted Cameron onto his back in a fireman’s carry without so much as a grunt before he strode into a wide abandoned alley that led to the tracks. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing to you and why.”
Help! Dusty! Cameron tried to say, but it was useless. He was as still as a drowsy newborn.
The devil carried him out onto the tracks and down the way a bit to where a parked black SUV waited. Yanking the door open, he threw Cameron into the back seat so his face smooshed against the fabric. Seconds later, an engine turned over, and they started to move.
Roaring fear pulsed through Cameron’s veins. He was unnerved by the tingling pain of his skin and disoriented with his face pressed into the back seat of the SUV. In his periphery, he spotted nothing but a few crumpled grocery bags on the floor. They drove for a while—slowly and carefully, which meant they were still on city streets.
At last, the devil parked and dragged him out of the vehicle. An empty parking lot surrounded them. Overhead lights burned Cameron’s eyes, momentarily blinding him so that he couldn’t read the painted sign on the building before the devil hauled him inside.
Soon, the telltale scent of decomposing meat reached his nose. It wasn’t strong. Not festering or overpowering. More like the scent when you leave some raw beef in the fridge for just a little too long.
Despite being handled like a rag doll, Cameron noted the white room’s partial layout. At the far end, he spied stainless steel—a walk-in freezer, he guessed. A swinging door sat at the opposite end. And at the center of the room was a large, wooden butcher block.
The devil dropped him on the block, arranging his arms and legs so he lay like a corpse. Above him, dozens of blades, from huge cleavers to paring knives, hung from little hooks. Every sharp tip aimed at his body.
“I know you, you parasite. Going around complaining you didn’t get a fair shake.” The devil perused the hanging knives, tsking with disappointment. He walked over to a drawer and yanked it open, a loud rattle echoing through the room as he fished through the utensils.
He turned back to Cameron with kitchen shears in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other.
“The trouble with your generation isn’t your work ethic. You don’t have one, but that’s nothing new.” He used the tongs to open Cameron’s mouth and grip his tongue.
Cameron couldn’t move, but he still felt everything. As the man pinched his tongue way too hard, the taste of metal filled his mouth. He wanted to scream, to thrash. But he was frozen inside this nightmare.
“The trouble is, you’re proud you have no work ethic. So much so, you insult those who do.” The devil brought the scissors to rest on Cameron’s cheek. “Fascists, that’s what you call them. Though you’re so young and stupid, you have no idea what it means.”
Cameron’s eyes widened, a foggy memory cohering in the back of his brain.
“You recognize who I am, don’t you?” The devil tilted his head from side to side. “Well, then you know I don’t take kindly to junkie homos saying any words to me, let alone what you said. Somebody has to set you straight.”
The devil lifted the scissors, jerking Cameron’s tongue with the tongs. He opened the shears, positioned them around the organ, and…
In one swift clip, he severed the tissue holding Cameron’s tongue to the bottom of his mouth. Then he kept digging.
Searing pain unlike anything he’d ever experienced tore through Cameron. Blood gushed and pooled in his mouth, choking him as it inundated his throat.
“Kind of a stubborn thing, isn’t it?” The devil man pulled back. “Well, there’s more than one way to get what I need.”
Cameron gagged—or he wanted to.
The scissors in the devil’s hand rose again before Cameron’s eyes. Then they plunged down, piercing through the front of his throat. But more terrifying than the sharp pains of the devil cutting was the choking sensation. He couldn’t breathe.
Then the pressure gave way as his tongue came loose.
His imprisoned mind screamed and writhed as the monster held the bleeding lump of flesh above him, dangling it like a tiny fish on a hook. Cameron choked again, trying to swallow, to spit, to do anything.
Warm liquid filled his throat, sealing off the air. The devil’s terrifying, taunting mask came into full view as he leaned closer and wrapped his hands around Cameron’s neck.
Detective Justice Hall couldn’t believe how a perfect evening had turned to shit so quickly. Less than an hour ago, he’d been with Heather Lenoir, enjoying showing the beautiful new district attorney around the area.
Now he was in the homeless encampment, staring down at a young man who’d been scared enough to reach out to law enforcement for help. No…not just law enforcement. He’d contacted Justice specifically.
Cameron shrugged. “He chased after me and grabbed me, but I fought him off.” He glanced over his shoulder again before pulling back the sleeves on his hoodie to reveal huge yellow and gray bruises on his arms.
“He did that to you?”
Cameron nodded and quickly covered his arms. “This isn’t the first time.”
“This guy has attacked you before?”
“Twice. And others have been attacked.”
“How many others? Do you have names?”
“No. No, I can’t tell you. I won’t tell you.”
Justice rolled his eyes and clicked his pen closed. “If you want there to be any chance of this guy getting caught, you need to cooperate.”
He couldn’t believe he’d rolled his eyes.
Justice crouched to get a better view of Cameron’s mouth. The young man’s tongue had been removed, cut at an angle by a sharp instrument. It was swollen, blocking his throat, and sticky with coagulated blood. Justice wished he could say he’d never seen anything like it, but he was an old hat at twenty-seven, at least when it came to murder.
Witnessing his entire family’s execution at the hands of a psychopath when he was eight years old had been little more than a prelude.
Behind the yellow crime scene tape stood the residents of the encampment, who now had nowhere to sleep tonight because their makeshift homes had become a crime scene.
Media and rubberneckers swarmed the area, which looked so different from two days ago when Justice came to take Cameron’s statement. At first, he thought the incident was related to the black market gun ring he’d been investigating. Now he knew it was just an unfortunate coincidence.
And Cameron Wilding was dead.
A young man stood off to the side, his face buried in his hands as he choked on his tears. Barely old enough to buy booze, Dusty Lee was tall and lean with a symmetrical face and Elvis-worthy dark hair. He was also Cameron’s boyfriend, the one who’d found the body.
Detective Marissa Spero stooped to examine the severed tongue. Her long black slacks puffed out beneath her men’s suit coat as she reached up to adjust her signature gray fedora. The woman was a parody of herself, simultaneously one of the most badass and hilarious people Justice had ever known.
Recently, she’d upgraded their status to friends. It was official. Maybe not Facebook official, but real-life official. And as far as Justice was concerned, that was the same damn thing.
As Marissa leaned closer to inspect the body, he noted the dark circles under her tired eyes. She looked haggard tonight, every one of her forty-two years written in fine lines.
And as her new BFF, Justice knew she wouldn’t appreciate him zeroing in on such things.
But by the same token, he no doubt looked a thousand times worse. Ever since he’d been promoted to Homicide, his life had been an unrelenting onslaught of blood. He was still drowning in the torrent.
Cameron lay on the ground in an awkward heap. There was very little blood at the scene, indicating he might have been killed somewhere else. He certainly looked like he’d been dumped here postmortem, an arm kicked back at an unnatural angle, legs up like a dead spider. He was in the grips of rigor mortis—his entire body stiff—which meant he was killed less than twenty-four hours ago.
He still wore the same hoodie he’d had on when Justice last saw him alive. Gray and thick despite the hundred-degree weather. Justice had initially thought he wore it to stave off chills caused by drugs, but that was before he learned Cameron was trying to cover the bruises left on him by the attacks he endured.
Now there were bruises on his throat.
“He was strangled after his tongue was sliced out. There are finger smears in the blood.”
“Doesn’t look clean enough to get fingerprints.”
“Our killer was probably wearing gloves.” With his own gloved finger, Justice opened Cameron’s mouth wider. “The cut was clean, almost surgical. Then, for some reason, his throat was slit.”
Marissa leaned in. “But look how high that cut is. It’s right under his jaw.”
“Maybe to get the tongue looser? The cut’s deep. Maybe an attempt at a Columbian necktie?”
“Thanks for that.” Marissa wrinkled her nose.
Justice turned toward the distraught voice as Dusty marched toward him, his hands balled into fists. “This is your fault.”
Marissa stood and stepped between them. “Now hang on a second…”
“He told you someone was trying to kill him. He asked for your help. And what did you do? Nothing!” Dusty bared his teeth and lunged at Justice.
Marissa grabbed the young man’s wrists and held him back. At six feet tall, she had more than half a foot on Dusty, and though she was built like a crane, there was nothing but power in those lithe limbs.
Justice rose to his feet slowly. Wave after wave of anger poured from the young man, but Justice could sense what was at the heart. Guilt, misery, and profound grief. Dusty had the same expression that parents got when they learned something awful had happened to one of their children. That was all the proof Justice needed to know that Dusty had loved Cameron with all his heart.
“Let go of me.” Dusty yanked his hands back from Marissa, his vitriol spilling naturally from Justice to her. “None of you give a shit what happens to any of us. You want us all dead. That psycho did you a favor.”
A chorus of angry agreement rang out from the homeless throng watching from the other side of the yellow line. The abandoned train station was a hostile environment for law enforcement at the best of times, where cops were regarded as heartless and stupid. At the worst of times, the homeless population saw the police as active forces of evil and cruelty.
Now they were all terrified. Trapped like rats and being hunted in the only place left in the city where they were allowed to exist.
Marissa remained admirably cool as ever.
“Dusty…” She set her hand lightly on the young man’s shoulder, regulating her breathing, seemingly to encourage him to do the same. A classic manipulation of the hysterical mind. “You shouldn’t stay here. You shouldn’t have to see Cameron like this. Let me take you down to the station.”
“You.” Dusty pointed at Justice. “You did this.”
A shiver raced down Justice’s spine, memories of Cameron crashing through his brain. When he’d come to interview him, Justice had been hoping Cameron’s experience had been linked to the illegal weapons he was currently investigating. When Cameron said the stalker had a dart gun, it didn’t add up.
Without meaning to, Justice had dismissed the information. The dart gun didn’t fit the profile. The victim in Cameron was all wrong. Besides, the young man was cagey in his testimony, holding back details for fear of something—when Justice asked, he’d refused to give the names of the other homeless people the stalker had attacked.
Justice hadn’t had the energy or motivation to press for the whole truth. He’d been on the hunt for the monster who kidnapped men and women so he could tie them to crosses on his remote, survivalist ranch and fill them with so many bullets that not even dental records could identify the remains with total accuracy.
Cameron had lied, at least a little. And Justice had used that fact to rationalize dismissing him, telling himself he didn’t have time for half-truths and omitted details.
Ever since the dead started talking to him again, Justice couldn’t seem to get his head on straight.
Still, just hours ago, he’d caught the Machine Gun Killer, who supplied his untraceable modified automatic assault rifles—known as “frankenguns”—to the Renegade Militia. Until the very moment he learned Cameron was dead, Justice had been riding the high of blasting the bastard to smithereens with one of the man’s own jerry-rigged bombs.
“It was my fault…” Justice met Dusty’s acidic gaze. “I didn’t help him.”
Marissa shot Justice a look he couldn’t decipher before turning back to Dusty. “I’m so sorry this happened. We’re going to do everything we can to catch the person who did this. But we need your help. Come down to the station with me. It’s not good for you to be here right now.”
Dusty’s furious eyes watered. He turned from Justice and covered his face with his hands, crying and cursing all at once. Marissa gingerly led him away.
Justice knelt beside Cameron, planting his knees onto the crumbling asphalt. His eyes were still open, so Justice brushed them closed, though he knew he was going against protocol to do so. He also pressed the mouth shut.
The removal of the tongue meant something.
Maybe Cameron tasted something he shouldn’t have.
Maybe it knew a secret that could never be told.
Maybe his tongue had offended.
Whatever the reason, the fact that it had happened at all was Justice’s fault. And it was his job alone to find the truth.
The devil has come to take his dues.
Deputy Justice Hall, still riding high in the aftermath of bringing down the infamous machine gun killer, faces a jarring return to reality. A homeless man, brutally murdered with his tongue savagely cut out, is just the beginning. And this isn’t just any victim…he’s a young man who once sought Justice’s help.
Yet another person he’s failed.
Plagued by guilt, Justice hates himself for dismissing the drug-addled man’s panicked story. Read More