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Last Mercy - Mary Stone

A Taste of… Last Mercy

Chapter One

Carla Alvarez tried to forget about the C-minus she got on her last times tables test, but it was impossible to ignore as she carried the weight of her mom’s sacrifice—a neon-blue backpack that had cost much more than they could afford.

The Christmas gift represented Carla’s failure. Her broken promises. With each step, it tapped against the rigid shell of her back brace, a staccato beat that echoed the sharp jabs of her classmates’ taunts.

Why did life have to be so hard? She was only ten and already knew her battles were just beginning, far from over.

She paused by the old oak tree and dropped her backpack to the ground. Mom expected her to walk straight home to the apartment and get started on homework. Before her life got all twisted up with doctor visits and the stupid spinal cage, Carla hadn’t minded the walk home. She hated the brace, temporary or not.

A lot of things in Carla’s life were supposed to be temporary, like living in what she’d referred to as “the worst neighborhood in the whole wide world.” Beyond the tree’s canopy, the sounds of laughter and the thud of a soccer ball being kicked back and forth served as a bitter reminder of a carefree life that seemed just out of reach. The ball flew over a fence, and the boys climbed over to get it as if scaling the structure was as simple as walking.

The wind picked up, sending a whirl of empty soda cups and plastic bags dancing along the chain-link fence. She turned away from the litter. From the thing no one seemed to care about.

Carla swore when she and her mom had a house, they’d take better care of it than the awful places around there. They kept their apartment pretty clean “in case the landlord stopped by.” Carla was super careful. No messes meant no bending over to clean things up.

Groaning, Carla straightened and stretched as best she could. The back brace made it impossible to move the way she used to. She inched one hand under the hem of her shirt to tug on the rigid plastic. It just wouldn’t sit properly and dug into her skin whenever she turned or tried to bend.

The brace had been irritating from the jump, but today was extra rough.

Going to school used to be sort of enjoyable. Not exactly a party, but at least not torture.

Today, Brooke and Ava swatted her notebook out of her hands and kicked it under the lunch tables, apparently just to watch her crawl around like a cockroach.

And, of course, Matthew and Lucas had thought it would be funny to kick the notebook side to side while she grabbed for it. It took her three tries and a “Cut it out!” before Lucas pushed it her way with his foot.

She tugged harder at the plastic, knowing she shouldn’t, but it didn’t budge anyway.

Ava had said she was like a bug wearing an oversize turtle shell.

Way to go, Ava, coming up with an insult that doesn’t even make sense.

But the words still hurt.

“If Ava and Brooke weren’t such bitches, I’d still be on the honor roll.”

The D.C. sidewalk didn’t answer her. The afternoon air remained still, and almost a little too cold.

With great care, she leaned to the side and picked up her backpack, hating how hard it was to do such a simple task. Carla shrugged into one shoulder strap, grimacing when the backpack thumped hollowly against her brace.

Only last year, she would’ve been hurrying home to drop her bag, do her homework, and hang out with the girls down the street.

Now?

Now they pretended like she didn’t exist. Street games were out because she could barely run. Hide-and-seek was hard because she couldn’t crawl into tight spaces.

When she got back home to the apartment, she’d drop her bag, do her homework, and spend the evening watching television. That’d be the weekend plan too. Aside from stupid stretching exercises, there wasn’t anything else to do. Mom wouldn’t have time to take her anywhere.

And even when her mom did finally get home, Carla would have to tell her about that C-minus.

“I shouldn’t complain.” Speaking to the ground, she bit back tears. Other people had it worse. “Mom’s doing the best she can.”

The truth didn’t change the fact that her mom had worked overtime, like, every day for the last month, leaving Carla mostly alone.

A shadow played in front of her, and she looked up. Far ahead, past the corner store and another empty lot, the turn that would take her home beckoned. But between her and the way to the apartment, a man in a tattered coat, stocking cap, and sunglasses stood directly in her path. He was maybe twenty feet down the sidewalk but focused on her.

No other movement on the street. No neighbors, no kids kicking a ball around anymore, no cars.

Carla stepped off the curb, thinking she would cross the street. But the Doberman that lived a few houses down let out a bark as soon as her foot touched the pavement. She jumped back onto the sidewalk and kept going, thinking she might just bull past the man.

“What’s your name, little one? You look miserable.”

Carla stopped, maybe five feet away from him. Were grown-ups going to bully her too?

She glared. “Who are you calling ‘little one?’ Get lost, mister, or I’ll scream.”

“No need to scream.” His voice was soft, but that didn’t make her feel any better.

Carla pushed forward, thinking he’d leave her be if she ignored him, but he walked backward ahead of her, his movement measuring hers and keeping the same too-close-for-comfort distance between them.

“Leave me alone, creep.”

“You don’t have to feel so miserable, you know.”

He had the same sort of acne scars as her mom, the same tired circles showing under his eyes from beneath his sunglasses.

“I said I’ll scream.”

The repeated threat made him shake his head, but he stayed ahead of her, walking backward in a way that made her feel smaller, less significant, than she already did.

“Don’t you need someone to talk to, honey? I can help you.”

“I’m fine.”

Tears burned behind Carla’s eyes, but she kept moving. This guy was bad news, and she knew it, but the street was empty.

Could she scream? It was so hard to imagine drawing that much attention to herself. Her mom would tell her to go on ahead, but the man hadn’t done anything but be creepy.

Plus, what would Carla say if the cops came? If the guy disappeared before they arrived, the cops would think she was crazy or—worse—lying. They’d probably laugh at her like Brooke and Ava had.

On top of it all, they’d call her mom, pulling her out of work, like they did when Carla skipped school the first day she wore the brace. Ava had been up in her face the moment she’d walked through the door, making jokes and calling her names. The other kids joined in, and Carla ran off before she even got through the gate. The school security officer chased her down and called her mom when Carla refused to go back.

Her butt was still sore from the paddling Mom had given her that day.

“Life is a curse, isn’t it?” The man huffed a plume of air between them. He was closer now. Walking backward ahead of her, but only maybe four feet away. “Wouldn’t it be better to have never been born? To save yourself from this misery?”

The words echoed those of her bullies, which made it easier for Carla to speed up her steps. That was all this man was. A bully.

“Leave me alone, you creep. I’ll scream, I swear.”

The Doberman snarled behind its fence and let out sharp barks in their direction. Carla flinched at each one.

The man chuckled at her.

“Are you afraid of dogs? Is that what life is like for you, just fear all the time? I know what that’s like.”

“I said leave me alone. I’m going to scream.”

The words sounded too small, even to her, and he kept talking as if he hadn’t heard her.

“Life itself is a disease, little girl, but it does have a cure. I can help you with it.”

They’d passed the house with the Doberman now, and its barks faded. The street remained empty except for some parked cars. No neighbors were out. If anything, the street looked more vacant than usual for a Friday afternoon.

The man stopped walking close enough to touch her. He bent toward her with gloved hands on his knees. “I’m the only one who can save you.”

Carla froze.

His voice had gone darker, deeper. Terrifying. Plus, it was cold but not really glove weather, not for adults.

She whirled, almost tripping in her boots, and a scream finally broke from her throat. “Help! Help me!” The Doberman’s house was a few houses back. She’d scream at that dog and—

A hand clamped onto her shoulder, yanking her backward. The hard, plastic brace made it impossible to lean away, and she fell. Her scream for help cut off as she hit the sidewalk and the air left her lungs.

His other hand had some fabric in it, and he covered her mouth, pressing hard. His fingers and palm smelled like hospital chemicals, burning her nostrils. She needed air, and she inhaled, pulling in the stink of whatever he had pressed over her face. Though she tried to scream, only gasps made it past his hand. He held her head steady with his other one.

She wanted to kick at him, but Carla’s mind went fuzzy. She wondered how much trouble she’d be in when she got home. She wondered if the dog would save her. It was barking again, but the sound was so very far away. Carla was so sleepy, too sleepy.

Her eyes grew heavier. She knew she should fight, push him away.

Carla closed her eyes, thinking she’d try to scream and struggle again in a minute. She just needed sleep. A little sleep, and then she would scream.

Chapter Two

Emma woke on her couch to darkness and the sound of a downpour hammering against her metal balcony. Her clock showed sometime after ten at night. The loosely capped bottle of pre-made margaritas judged her from the patio table on the balcony. Her good throw blanket was out there, getting soaked.

“Unbelievable.” She shoved herself into a sitting position, instantly regretting the rapid movement. One hand went to her pounding head, the other over her mouth in case the inevitable decided to take that moment to announce itself. Her stomach churned.

The drinks had poured themselves when she began missing her boyfriend. Oren would have poured them real drinks, with fresh ingredients. He’d have made a plate of nachos topped with his own mango salsa.

Oren would’ve laughed with his deep voice, his eyes glinting in the lamplight, sending a warmth through her. Even hungover, Emma blushed at her thoughts of Oren as she imagined dabbing sweet, tangy salsa from his perfect lips, bringing out his rumbly laugh.

All that could have happened if Oren were still alive. If he hadn’t been shot dead in his yoga studio by a deranged, schizophrenic murderer.

Almost a month had passed since he died, and Emma was trying to move past mourning. She was. But the future with Oren…well, she could visualize it like she could her hand right in front of her face. And then when she turned away for an instant and looked back, he was gone. Just like that.

She’d started her Sunday morning responsibly enough, until she decided that day drinking wasn’t all that bad if it was just one. She even planned to make up a little vegetable tray for snacking. What better way to cheer herself up on a day off when the weather was too gloomy to go running?

Not that she’d gone running recently, or held herself to one drink, or made the vegetable tray. From the instant that first boozehound’s margarita went into the mug, her fate was sealed.

Forcing herself to move, she got up and grabbed a fresh garbage bag from the kitchen, then ducked out into the cold rain to collect the throw blanket so it wouldn’t drip all over her apartment. By the time she got to the bathroom and changed out of her damp, tequila-scented clothes—did I spill the damn stuff on myself?—she almost felt human.

Mostly, she felt an ache in her chest she knew was grief, but at least that meant she was still, technically, among the living.

In the kitchen, she pulled the water pitcher from the fridge and sat down to hydrate. Her gaze fell on the half-emptied liquor bottle outside.

“At least it kept the damn dreams away. Score one for drugging myself stupid.”

She drank the water, pretending she was fine and that her insides weren’t presently threatening to become outsides. Pretending the blasted dreams didn’t also haunt her when she was awake.

Oren’s dead body. Emma couldn’t decide if she preferred the memory of his staring, unseeing blue eyes or the white-eyed gaze of his ghost from the Other.

In the dreams, she crouched beside him to mourn, but he turned his head to her—still dead-eyed—and howled like a wolf. The howls always woke her, echoing in her ears, her body trembling.

“Coffee. I need coffee.”

For once, her little pod brewer cooperated. She inhaled the rich, steaming aroma and almost took a sip before remembering how little sleep she’d managed the night before.

Should’ve brewed decaf, Emma girl. Just don’t tell Denae about it, or you’ll never live it down.

She set the mug on the counter and cradled her face in her hands, trying to think about dinner instead of the nightmares plaguing her sleep. Really, the endless parade of dreams and headaches was enough to make Emma hate life. Hate existence entirely.

The way her blood sometimes bubbled over with grief, heating her emotions from the inside until she felt like she might erupt in a fountain of pain and agonizing sorrow—she hadn’t yet figured out how to manage that. And now here she was, hungover and feeling as damp and drippy as the throw blanket she’d left stuffed in a garbage bag in her tub.

If she couldn’t even handle a simple task like hanging up a wet blanket, maybe she should just grab her margarita mug and finish off that bottle.

No. I can’t think like that. That’s a rabbit hole some people never come out of, and I will not let myself go there. Not today, not ever.

But the thoughts weren’t new. She’d spent her week of compassionate leave moping in her apartment, putting in more time on her couch than her yoga mat. Spending her nights wishing she could sleep. Dreading the moment her eyes slipped closed, because she knew the howling would begin shortly thereafter.

Jacinda had all but forced her to take advantage of the leave option, but Emma knew it was the right thing to do. Maybe she should’ve taken more time off. Even after she’d returned to work, Jacinda had only allowed her to do paperwork and desk duty.

What she wouldn’t give for a serial killer right about now. Well, not now, and not really, but a case to sink her teeth into would have been welcome.

Or to return in time to the moment Adam Cleaver walked into Oren’s studio. To be there and stop him, killing him if she had to.

Recognizing a bargainer’s thoughts, Emma paused with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth. She’d picked it up without realizing. Taking a calming breath, just like Oren would have advised, Emma replaced the cup and stood straight, arms at her sides, shoulders relaxed.

Breathe, center, and refocus. Reframe. Everything is a lesson, and every breath is an opportunity to learn something new.

Letting her breath out slow and steady, Emma reminded herself that even desk duty and paperwork had their places in Bureau affairs, and they were just as important, if not more so, than getting into the field on the trail of a violent criminal. The tasks Jacinda gave her were just more opportunities to impress her supervisor with her ability to perform.

But your paperwork’s been less than impressive, Emma girl. Jacinda’s made that clear.

Painfully clear, in fact.

And just like that, all the centering and balance she’d found from memories of Oren were swept aside, replaced with the unholy trinity of guilt, shame, and anger.

What did little errors and typos matter in the bigger scheme of things? Nobody could really complain if she wasn’t up to her usual level of perfection. Not after what she’d been through. What she hadn’t been able to stop.

Emma scoffed at her own attitude. She wasn’t going to let grief be the end of her. A quick slug of coffee scalded her tongue and shook her from the downward spiral.

Quit it, Emma. No more coffee. Food, then sleep. That’s all you need, and you’ll be good as new.

She put a pan on the stove, thinking a fried egg might help the jackhammering in her head. Two eggs, maybe. While the pan heated up, Emma stalked to the couch. Her phone blinked with alerts for messages she had no intention of answering. As it had for days.

Mia and Keaton and Leo all checking in on her, seeing how things were going.

Leo had been especially insistent lately. Tonight, he left another message, promising he’d be there for her whenever she needed him.

The man seemed incapable of leaving her to her grief.

“Don’t get too close to me, Leo, or you’ll end up dead too.” She wished she could say that to him rather than to her living room walls. She knew he meant well. Emma just wasn’t in the mood for his support.

Yeah, he was a friend, but he was also a colleague, and one she’d twice now given reason to mistrust her. The last two cases had ended with her racing after the perpetrator on her own, first in a car, chasing Kenneth Grossman, and then pounding her feet into the ground on the trail of Adam Cleaver.

Sure, both cases had ended with the suspects in custody. But they also ended with Emma earning an earful from the SSA about being a team player. Her colleagues depended on her to follow the game plan, but they couldn’t if she was out in front.

“All because you decided to make the decisions for everyone.”

Showing her weakness to Leo or anyone on the team wouldn’t do anybody any good.

Emma turned back to her little kitchen and refocused, pulling two eggs from the fridge even though food held less interest for her than before. She got the eggs sizzling in the pan, lowered the heat, and leaned back against the counter. Her gaze caught the calendar hanging on the fridge.

How had nearly a month gone by since Oren died?

The loss still felt as raw as when she’d seen him lying in the Yoga Map, bled out and already going cold to the touch. That felt like yesterday.

“I’m going to be alone forever, aren’t I? Doomed to never have a family again. Never love someone without them dying on me.”

Emma stared at her eggs, shocked into a chuckle at the melodrama of the words that’d just come out of her mouth. A rush of anger straightened her back, and she flipped her meal as if to shut down the thoughts and fry them into oblivion. Being dramatic was something fourteen-year-old Emma would do.

She was twenty-eight and a federal agent, for crying out loud.

Boo-fucking-hoo that your boyfriend died.

People dealt with worse than that every day, and so would Emma. She’d just keep right on going without a family and be considered all the braver for it.

Biting her tongue as if to remind herself she was tough, Emma pulled out a plate and waited for her eggs to fry past the point when most chefs would have served them up.

She’d survive, just like she always did. Alone.

And hell, some alone time was good. She’d been enjoying it, really. Her ghostly neighbor across the street, Madeline Luse, had all but stopped trying to communicate with her. She only rarely turned to look her way and hadn’t offered a wave in weeks.

Emma was at a stalemate with the whole of the Other, really. Even her most devoted ghostly visitor, Mrs. Kellerly, had cut back. The old woman’s willowy ghost, once a daily “treat” for Emma’s mornings, now appeared only every few days and never with more than a single word for her.

“Forget.”

Emma took Mrs. Kellerly’s advice at face value, doing her best to ignore the old ghost every time she oozed into the kitchen. In all honesty, she’d never felt less inclined to talk to the dead. Her psychic friend, Marigold, had sent a few texts since Oren had been killed. But they’d been easier to ignore than anyone’s.

The Other has nothing to offer me right now. Maybe it’ll even go quiet on me for good. Wouldn’t that be something?

Emma flipped her eggs onto a plate and took the meager meal to the kitchen island.

The eggs had no taste—she’d forgotten to season them even with salt and pepper—but she forced bite after bite down into her tequila-addled stomach.

She kept her eyes down, though, away from the room at large. Because despite what she kept telling herself about not needing to see the Other, the truth was far simpler than ghosts changing their behavior and offering unsolicited advice.

Emma was terrified the next ghost she’d see would be Oren’s, white-eyed and accusing, and ever so dead.

At the mercy of a killer.

Overwhelmed with grief and anger, Special Agent Emma Last is now haunted by more than the ghosts who seek her out. Guilt becomes her constant companion as she attempts to unwind the clock, undo what’s been done to yet another person she loves.

Will she ever escape the weight of her past?

When a fellow agent rescues a little girl hidden in the tunnels under the Washington National Opera House, Emma finds a focus for her energy. And she’s determined to find the person responsible. Especially when two more children are found in the same tunnel network, their lives gruesomely claimed by blood-sucking leeches. Read More