Sonny Burroughs lit his last cigarette as he paced the parking lot outside the motel room. The hot Texas wind nearly suffocated him every time he breathed, making him even more agitated. He shivered despite the early morning heat and wrapped his red leather jacket around himself a little tighter.
Two days had passed since he last slept or saw his mother, and he was ready to go home and crash. But first he needed to smoke a joint to ease his frayed nerves. Nothing was as hellish as coming down off Pinecones. All he could focus on was how edgy and twitchy he felt, like the worst nicotine crash imaginable.
In a couple hours…
No, he couldn’t think of how terrible he’d feel in a couple hours if he didn’t re-up. Fast.
He heard the cops had done a huge bust of the Syndicate—the gang that manufactured and supplied the drug—which meant the streets would probably run dry for a while. And that meant Sonny was quickly growing even more impatient than usual.
A guy on the east side said he had a hookup. Now all Sonny needed was the cash.
He peered into the room through a crack in the motel curtains. All he could see was a sliver of the bed and one of Jess’s platform heels on the dingy carpet. She’d already been in there twenty minutes longer than the john paid for. Jess Sterling never listened to the rules. She’d even gone so far as to try to hide money from him.
Sonny hoped that behavior was over after the last time he’d caught her. He hated when his girls misbehaved and forced him to lay his hands on them. That wasn’t his style. He preferred to keep the hoes in check with kind words and encouragement—with presents and promises.
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t beat the hell out of them when they stepped out of line.
He thought Jess had learned her lesson, but his fists twitched as he smoked down to the end of his last cigarette. There was no point in looking through the window again. He was about to pound on the door when, at last, it flew open. Jess came stumbling out, smiling and waving goodbye to the man inside.
Dark hair fell over her pale shoulders, and shimmery green powder covered her eyelids. Her breasts were smooshed into a skintight halter top that left them looking asymmetrical, while her love handles spilled over her tight, metallic skirt. Thanks to all her mouthing off, she had a new chip in her front tooth.
“Hey, Sonny.” Jess wobbled in her heels as she walked over to him.
He snatched her arm and dragged her toward the SUV parked across the lot. “What took you so long?”
“I’m sorry.” She staggered to keep up with his pace. “When we were done, he started crying. He’s going through a divorce, and the fool’s still in love with his wife. He wanted to talk more.” Her blue eyes grew distant, and her red-smeared lips twitched. “He says I remind him of her.”
“Dumbass.” He wheeled her around, bumping her shoulder against his blue Ford Explorer. “I hope you got paid for that shit.”
“He was so sad.” Jess wrapped her arms around herself. “I didn’t charge him for the extra time.”
Sonny rolled his eyes. So much for Mister Nice Guy. He snapped his fingers and stuck out his hand. “Cash. Now.”
Jess nodded and fished through her purse.
He licked his lips impatiently, his nerves on fire. The second she pulled out her rhinestone-studded wallet, Sonny snatched it out of her hand and yanked out all the cash. He counted it quickly, then waved the wad in her face. “This it?”
“Yes. I mean…”
Sonny smacked her across the face hard enough that her body spun.
She caught herself on the side mirror of the SUV. “I swear! That’s everything.” She grabbed his arm. “I wouldn’t do you dirty like that. Never again.”
He snatched her wrist and lifted it to eye level, squeezing hard. She tried to move in close to him, but he was sick of looking at her. Every little yelp of pain only made him dig his fingers deeper into her flesh. He’d been out here losing his mind while she listened to some pussy complain about how his woman left him?
Jess grabbed onto the front of his shirt to keep herself upright. “I’ll do right by you. I swear!”
“You wanna do right by me?” Sonny threw her against his Explorer. “I told you how to do right by me, hoe.” When she screamed, he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back.
“Shut your mouth.” He wrapped his arm around her neck, pulled a small butane torch lighter from his coat pocket, and lit it near Jess’s eye. “I guess you weren’t listening last time.”
“Please, Sonny.” Her body trembled, her chest rising and falling rapidly. “I listened. I would never, ever steal from you again.”
“You steal from me when you waste my time.” Hitting her didn’t seem to work. He needed to move on to the next nastiest thing—the signature tactic he used to keep his females in line—and he would do it right there in the parking lot for anybody to see. The motel was mostly empty anyway. And even if it wasn’t, people in this neighborhood knew to mind their business.
He slammed her forehead against the SUV window and held the lighter against her neck. She screamed and thrashed, but he gripped her throat harder, cutting off her air supply.
Sonny burned her skin until it bubbled before pushing her down on the asphalt. Jess sobbed as she gasped for air.
“Now get your ass back out there and make me some real money.”
“I will, Daddy.” With her hand pressed to the wound, she shakily rose to her feet and tottered away.
What a shame. He’d planned to let her have the rest of the night off.
Teaching these bitches hard lessons was such a vibe killer. He wished she’d behave.
A cig. That was what he needed. He pulled out his pack and crushed it when he rediscovered it was empty. All the anxiety in his blood boiled over like a geyser. No way was he going to drive to the east side and pick up his shit without any smokes. Who knew how long he’d be there?
He’d have to stop at a gas station on the way.
Sonny slipped into his SUV and fired up the engine. He was reaching for the gearshift when something cold and hard pressed against the back of his neck.
He’d been around the block enough times to know the touch of a gun barrel when he felt it. He froze and lifted his hands slowly, his eyes shifting to the rearview mirror.
Someone wearing a black ski mask sat in his back seat.
Sonny swallowed hard. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Drive home like nothing’s wrong.” The voice was female, but he didn’t recognize it. “Go the speed limit and stop for every light. You got it?”
“You’re making a big mistake, bitch.”
She pushed the gun harder into his spine. “Drive.”
He wanted to wheel back and break her neck, but with the gun pressed against his flesh, that was probably not the best idea. He’d do as she said. When they got back to his place and he got a better angle on her, he would make her wish she’d never been born.
No woman had ever gotten the best of Sonny Burroughs, and that would not change tonight.
The paper shook in Detective Justice Hall’s hand. Three words. I SEE U.
He was still standing on the back porch of his ranch house. The leaves on the trees still glistened in the midmorning sun, and his dogs still frolicked in the yard. But nothing was as it had been a minute ago—arriving back at his ranch as the conquering hero—before he read those words.
Life wasn’t safe anymore. Someone had followed him to the Amado Cartel’s stronghold in Mexico. Nobody was supposed to know he’d even gone there, let alone what he did there—the terrible things he did.
I SEE U. They knew where he lived. That meant they knew his name.
Justice flipped through the three snapshots that were attached to the note. None showed his face or his truck or anything that could identify him. So the pictures weren’t incriminating. Not exactly.
The first picture showed him entering Juan’s Catering, his jacket bulky from the hidden grenades and automatic weapons strapped to his chest. The second captured him leaving the building covered in blood with a man slung over his shoulders—the Chemist’s final victim, who Justice dropped off at the curb of the nearest hospital. The final photo caught him pressing the button that detonated the explosion.
All the while, this person, hidden in the shadows, snapped pictures of him.
Five people were dead. And someone had seen him.
He studied the note again. I SEE U. The letters shakily handwritten in green ink on a small white piece of unmarked stationery. Folded twice.
Was this person watching him now?
He scanned the horizon. His ranch was open, with hills low enough to see a long way in every direction. And isolated—down a dirt road off the highway with no signs pointing to the turnoff.
There was nowhere to hide among buildings or trees, but he’d been letting the meadow grow thick for months now. The animals liked it that way.
Could someone be hiding in that grass?
A feeling like a scalpel tracing down his spine made Justice shudder.
He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The two dogs playing out in the meadow stopped in their tracks. Or at least, they tried.
Max was too old to make sudden movements anymore. He loped a few steps, then cast that classic pit bull smile over his bulging shoulder.
Laika, the golden retriever, was still a puppy in every way but size. But he was limited by his two broken back legs, currently strapped into a wheelchair—a little doggy cart.
The man who’d hurt Laika—a Syndicate assassin called Scorpion—was dead now, decapitated by his own booby trap. Not that Justice wouldn’t have beheaded the lunatic himself. Scorpion just beat him to it.
When his pups finally joined him, Justice scooped Laika up and carried him inside, loyal Max loping behind without being told. He bolted the door behind them before systematically locking every window. Feeling slightly more secure, he went into his office and climbed up on his desk to get into the vent. Pushing aside the wooden box that contained souvenirs from his late-night excursions, he groped blindly until the tips of his fingers brushed cool metal.
With a loaded unregistered Colt .45 in hand and a bulletproof vest over his shirt, Justice felt better. Now was not the time for his usual—registered—weapon of choice, a Colt 1911 carried in a leather shoulder holster. He placed his off-white Stetson on his head and left through the front door, locking the dogs inside.
He tapped his fingers along the gun grip as he made his way out to the road. It was midmorning—humid and warm, with birds twittering.
The tall grass in the meadow stood still.
Justice walked the length of the road from his house to the gate. He knew every nuance of his tire tracks, even though they were a common, nondistinctive pattern.
There were three other sets of tracks, though.
Who had come to his ranch since the last rain?
It was a simple process of elimination. Besides Henry’s Ford Taurus, Justice saw Sheriff Galvez’s Subaru had also been there. That made sense. Henry had mentioned she’d spontaneously driven out there to check up on Justice while Henry was at Justice’s ranch to care for Max and Laika.
But there was one set he couldn’t identify. An unsanctioned tread.
He recognized them as coming from a popular brand that at least a dozen people who worked at the sheriff’s department used, not to mention half the county. Put simply, the tracks could belong to anyone.
I SEE U. I SEE U. The words played through his head like a chant.
Could Eliza have left the note? It didn’t seem likely. And when? It hadn’t been there when he’d arrived home at sunrise. He would’ve noticed it. He’d been in a euphoric state—a place of relaxation and hyperawareness that he could only seem to reach right after he’d done what needed to be done. What nobody else was willing to do.
Last night, he’d been in Mexico. He’d driven there to find the inventor of Pinecones—a new designer drug more dangerous than fentanyl—that was making the rounds through the Southwest from Louisiana to California.
The Chemist had been more than just another scumbag cartel cook. He had a habit of kidnapping unwilling test subjects—mostly young service workers with no connections to the drug scene—and injecting them with experimental drugs that might kill them or drive them completely insane. The Chemist also enjoyed driving a bone drill through his victims’ temples before tossing their bodies into an industrial incinerator like animal carcasses.
Justice and the rest of the sheriff’s department had raided the Chemist’s lab, hidden underground beneath the Syndicate’s headquarters in Bowe City, Texas. Though the Chemist escaped, they’d arrested all the prominent members of the Syndicate, the biker gang that distributed the drugs.
At the time, Justice told himself he would let the system handle it. He wouldn’t get involved. Not like he had with Scorpion or da Vinci or Darrel Daulton. When it came to the Syndicate, he would let the justice system do its thing.
But then Ben Kane, leader of the Syndicate, was given insultingly low bail by some jackass judge who was probably in the pocket of the same cartel Ben and the Chemist were associated with. They both managed to get out of the country.
Their escape convinced Justice nothing would ever happen if he waited for justice to take its course. The Chemist would keep working. More innocent victims would be abducted, tortured, and disposed of like old meat.
He was left with no choice.
Using a fake passport to get down to Mexico, he found the cartel setting up a new lab. He’d sneaked inside, disposed of two guards, put three bullets in Ben Kane’s head, and slit the Chemist’s throat before blowing the building up with what turned out to be an excessive amount of C-4. He’d even paused along the way to kill the cartel’s number two, Gabriela Morales.
When he closed his eyes, Justice remembered how the blood had looked as it burst from the Chemist’s throat. The way Ben Kane’s blood had splattered the walls and carpet.
Had I SEE U seen that?
Leaving no stone unturned should’ve made him feel better, but it didn’t. Because although he could say there was no one in the house, he couldn’t say for sure he was alone on the ranch. It was too big to be certain.
But he had to try.
Nicki was waiting impatiently in her stall. After quickly scanning the rest of the barn and finding nothing, Justice went about feeding the bay mare and changing her water.
“Is this supposed to be blackmail?” From his pocket, Justice snatched the pictures that had been paper-clipped to the folded note. The images were small and squarish. Whatever printer had chucked these out was poor quality. The photos were hard to decipher. “Probably a portable printer connected to a phone, don’t you think?”
He leaned his back against the stable and patted Nicki’s neck as she went after her breakfast. “You see me, huh?” Justice spat on the ground and readjusted his hat. “Well, go ahead and look, you son of a bitch.”
Reaching into his front pocket, Justice pulled out the heart-shaped rhodonite stone that had accompanied the message and examined it. Cloudy pink and black swirls ran together, resembling a nebula. Polished and pretty, the stone looked like something straight out of a crystal shop.
If it was a gift, it was a thoughtful one. Whoever sent it might have known that Justice always kept a worry stone made of iolite in his left pocket, smooth and oily from eighteen years of loyal, almost daily use.
The iolite worry stone was a gift from a Parisian crystal shop, courtesy of serial killer Justin Black—who’d facilitated the murder of Justice’s family in front of his own eyes before snatching him away and becoming a kind of twisted mentor to him. The gesture came shortly after Justin had made nine-year-old Justice track down the two Australian girls in Spain, bringing their gruesome deaths right to them.
For over a week Justice—his name was still Tim back then—had not spoken a word. He’d been crying almost constantly and hadn’t been able to stop himself from raking his fingernails over his arms and legs, no matter how many times Justin called him a freak, told him to knock it the fuck off, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t.
Justin got down on a knee and set his hand on Tim’s little shoulder.
He had such beautiful pale-blue eyes, like a clean lake frozen in winter. Justin reached into a small paper bag and took out a dark-purple stone with white lightning running through it. “This is iolite. Can you say iolite?”
Tim said nothing. He so wanted to look down at his shoes, but he was terrified to turn away. Justin always got furious when Tim wouldn’t look him in the eyes. And when Justin got angry, Tim got hurt.
“Do you know much about Vikings, Tiny Timmy?”
Tim shrugged. He knew they were fierce warriors who wore fur and big helmets. And he knew they liked to rape and pillage, whatever pillage meant.
“This stone is a light polarizer.” Justin lifted the rock toward the sun. It appeared iridescent, like frosted glass.
It was so beautiful. Tim felt a stirring in his gut. At that moment, he wanted to hold the stone more than he’d ever wanted anything. His fingers ached to reach for it. Instead, he clenched them into a fist.
“Some kinds of light can pass through it, while others can’t. The Vikings used it for navigation on overcast days. It helped them find their way.” Justin flicked the stone in the air, sending it twirling in the sun, before catching it and holding it out to Tim. “Iolite has the power to guide the lost home. It can also open the spiritual pathways that connect the living with the dead.”
Tim sucked on his bottom lip. Could that be true? He didn’t have a home, not really. Justin had stolen his home when he murdered his parents and his sister. Winter Black might have been the one to snap their necks, but it was all at Justin’s behest. Tim’s home was with the dead. Could this stone really lead him there?
“Take it, Timmy. And when you feel scared, lost, or angry, or you just don’t know what to do with yourself, I want you to rub it. A little bit of the stone will come off on your fingers and make its way into your blood. The power will make its way inside of you. Then maybe you’ll remember where your home is.” Justin squeezed his shoulder and pulled him closer. “With me.”
Caught in Justin’s eyes, a powerful shudder ripped through Tim. Justin was his home—the only home he had left. His fingers loosened, and he reached for the stone.
Justin placed the iolite in his palm—cool and smooth and glowing in the sun. He closed Tim’s little fingers around it, his hand lingering. Then he pulled Tim close to his chest and kissed his hair.
“It’s all right, Tiny Timmy. I know you’re scared. Life is scary. But you’re strong. And if you stick with me, you can only get stronger. Maybe this will help you see that.”
Justice shuddered at the memory. All he wanted at that moment was to feel Justin’s arms wrapped around him. And he hated himself for that.
He examined the heart-shaped rock. Could Justin have sent it? He was the only one who knew about Justice’s history with stones and crystals.
No. Justin was locked away in a state-of-the-art, maximum security prison and had been for years now. Justice checked almost every day to ensure he was still there and hadn’t escaped.
But Justin had people on the outside, loyal followers and fans. Could one of them…?
Justice returned to his house, closed every set of blinds, and sat on his bed with the two stones. Iolite for home and death, and rhodonite for…
He took out his phone and googled the metaphysical implications of rhodonite, expecting to see something about vision and clarity.
Love. Rhodonite was for love.
I SEE U…but with love. What the hell did that mean?
I SEE U
Nobody was supposed to know that Deputy Justice Hall secretly went to the Amado Cartel’s stronghold in Mexico to mete out justice the judicial system denied to the creator of a deadly street drug and the leader of the motorcycle gang that distributed it.
But someone followed him. And they want him to know it, as evidenced by the handwritten note with the words \”I SEE U\”—accompanied by photo evidence and a heart-shaped stone—left at Justice’s ranch.
Is this somehow the work of Justin Black, the man who murdered Justice’s family and then kidnapped him? Is it blackmail? Or does Justice have some kind of twisted admirer?…Read More