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Mary Stone - End of Justice (A Villain’s Story FBI Mystery Series Book 10)

A Taste of… The End of Justice

Chapter One

Liam Tanner shouted every obscenity he could think of as his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend sped off. Swatting at the cloud of dust and blinking away the sting, he hurled a rock as hard as he could, gritting his teeth as it skipped along the gravel road.


Sherry had lost her mind before and thrown him out of her car. But not like this. They were usually in the middle of the city, so it was easy enough to hail a taxi or text one of his friends for a ride. Leaving him out here in Bumfuck, Nowhere was a new low.

It was also the last damn straw.

He patted his pockets, searching for his phone and growling in frustration when he remembered it was still sitting on the dash in Sherry’s Honda, hooked up to a lightning cable. She’d left him miles away from anything without his device.

Panic lit up his nerves. He’d never been in a situation like this before—abandoned with four bucks in his wallet. And more importantly, no way to call for help. He had his mother’s number memorized, but that was it. And without a phone, fat lot of good that would do him.

I’ll be in the clear if I can find somebody who’ll let me use their phone.

A hot evening wind stirred toward him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. What the hell was he thinking? He was in the middle of nowhere.

He glanced over his shoulder. Besides the empty state highway, nothing but tall grass and spotty trees awaited him, as far as he could see. The only creatures to keep him company out here were a couple of ravens on the telephone wire. Turning in the direction his now ex-girlfriend had sped off, he noticed a line of green snaking across the landscape. Thicker trees, healthier grasses. A river, maybe? But still no building in sight.

They’d come out here looking for privacy. A place they could eat the eight grams of psychedelic mushrooms he’d scored from his friend at work. Somewhere they could connect with nature…and hopefully each other. It was supposed to be an amazing night. They were supposed to be making up after all the fighting that had been going on for the past few weeks.

But when he mentioned he’d scored the mushrooms from his friend Emily, Sherry lost her damn mind. Like she always did. Stupid, jealous, narcissistic pain in the ass. It was like he wasn’t allowed to know other women existed without being punished for it. He’d put up with her jealousy for months now, but it was over. So, so over.

Cursing under his breath, Liam shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked rocks as he paced the road. He supposed his only real option was to flag down a car and hitch a ride. He was pretty sure he didn’t seem like a serial killer. Kinda short, red hair, freckles, dressed in jeans and his favorite I Paused My Game to Be Here t-shirt.

The rumble of an engine behind him caught his attention. Turning around, he shielded his eyes from the setting sun with one hand and stuck his thumb out with the other, but the car never so much as slowed.

His high-top sneakers scraped against the gravel as he continued down the road toward the trees. The first sign he saw read, No Services 20 Miles.

It felt like a kick straight to the balls.

He looked back, trying to remember how far they’d traveled since fueling up at the last gas station. Ten miles at least, maybe more.

That meant he had about twenty miles to go. Crap.

The sun would disappear soon, and the last thing he wanted was to be left hitchhiking in the dark. Knowing his luck, some drunk driver would swerve and hit him.

After walking for about twenty minutes and being ignored by another passing driver, Liam reached the tree line. He was right above the river. A bridge with concrete railings spanned the gap, and just on the other side was a narrow path leading down to the water.

A deep, gruff voice caught his attention. Liam leaned over the side of the bridge, peering through thick foliage. It sounded like a man talking to himself, cursing and grumbling. Then Liam noticed the fishing line stuck in the water about a hundred yards from the bridge. He followed the line to the tip of a fishing pole, but he couldn’t get a glimpse of the man holding it.

Liam glanced back at the road—the empty, heartless, darkening road. Maybe the man had a phone he could use. Or if he was headed into a town soon, maybe he’d be willing to give him a lift and drop him at a gas station, where he’d have a better chance of figuring something out.

It seemed like a safer bet than taking his chances walking. Liam traipsed the narrow, beaten path down to the river. Creek. Whatever. It was pretty wide, and the water seemed calm and shallow, with grasses poking up all along the bank.

Liam fiddled with the chakra stone bracelet on his wrist. He pinched the yellow bead—the solar plexus chakra. Also called the maṇipūra chakra, it was where bravery and courage resided in the body. He took a deep breath through his nose, trying to pull power from the air. He needed all the help he could get.

Rounding a bend, he approached a large pickup truck with a covered bed. Based on the old movies he’d seen, the vehicle looked like something straight out of the seventies or eighties, all boxy with faux-wood paneling along the sides. But it was well loved, without a single scuff on the paint.

A loud creak echoed as the tailgate swung open. Liam jumped, an undignified yelp escaping him.

The fisherman poked his head around the side of the vehicle. He was tall, well over six feet, and the texture of his face resembled an overcooked steak—rough and leathery. Fifty-something, he had brown-and-gray stubble, a big, bulbous nose, and vaguely pockmarked cheeks, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair.

He wasn’t ugly per se, but he appeared kind of mean, with lines and folds pulling his face into a scowl. In fact, he looked like he knew a lot of stories about sea monsters and would have fit into the average pirate crew. His white t-shirt and fishing vest—covered with bait and lures and hooks—only added to the seafaring effect. Black, mud-caked galoshes concealed the lower half of his dark-wash jeans.

“Hi.” Liam’s voice cracked. He tightened his two fingers over the yellow bead and cleared his throat. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m stranded. I was wondering if I could maybe use your phone?”

The fisherman opened his mouth to answer, but something seemed to stop him. His expression darkened as he stared at Liam. Without a word, he picked up his tackle box and loaded it into the truck.

Liam glanced over his shoulder, wondering what he ought to do. This guy was clearly having a bad day—maybe a bad decade. He didn’t want any trouble, so he turned and started back up toward the main road.

“Ain’t got a damn phone.” The fisherman slammed the tailgate shut.

Liam stopped in his tracks. “That’s okay. Thanks anyway.”

“Car trouble?” He walked around front and leaned his elbow on the hood.

Liam followed after him. “Not exactly. My girlfriend went psycho and kicked me out of the vehicle. Ex-girlfriend.”

The fisherman grunted in commiseration. “Women.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It doesn’t get better. You’re what, twenty?”

“Nineteen.”

“Shit.” The man wiped his lips, turning his head to gaze out over the water. “Do yourself a favor…don’t ever get married. It ain’t worth it.”

Liam smiled, thinking he might have found a way out of his current predicament. The guy was rough around the edges, but it seemed they had some common ground. He’d had never been the sort to talk trash about women, but he was mad enough at Sherry to perform some misogyny, especially if it meant getting a ride back to civilization. “I’ll never get married. At least not to that crazy bitch.”

“They’re all the same. Women.” He drummed his fingers on the hood. “So you’re out here all alone. No one knows you’re here.”

“Bro, I don’t even know where here is.” Liam fidgeted but offered a half-hearted chuckle, hoping to appear polite. He didn’t like the way the fisherman was looking at him. His fierce eyes were focused and intense, gazing through him with an expression halfway between a snarl and a sneer.

Glancing away, Liam dug into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. It was mostly empty. A driver’s license, an old gift card he hadn’t spent yet, and that four dollars in cash. “If you could give me a ride into town, I’ll pay you what I can. For gas or whatever. I’d appreciate it. I don’t want to hitchhike in the middle of the night. There’s a lot of weirdos out there.”

“You don’t say.” The fisherman ran his tongue over his bottom lip. He stared out over the water again, his expression miles away. “Keep your money,” he said at last. “I left some more gear down by the bank. Help me get loaded up, and I’ll give you a ride.”

Relief flooded Liam. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver.”

Without another word, Liam hurried down to the water, picking his steps on the narrow path in his haste. Shadows stretched in the setting sun, making it difficult to navigate the uneven ground. Two poles leaned against a gnarled tree, and a large tackle box sat open by the stream. He packed the tackle box up, making sure he stowed everything precisely where it belonged.

When Liam had all the gear in hand, he turned and started toward the truck. Glancing up, he froze. The man was standing on the path only a few feet away, watching him. Liam couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about this man, something predatory.

He steadied his hands, which were trembling. Half of him wanted to turn back around and just walk the twenty miles back into town.

But the sun had all but set now, nothing to illuminate the scene but a vague purple glow casting shadows on everything. It’d be hard to see his way in the dark.

“It must be nice to be young.” The fisherman took a step forward. “Not a care in the world.”

Liam’s heart rate picked up, his lungs aching like they were filled with ice.

Get a grip, he told himself. This was just a guy.

He forced himself to answer, letting his anger at Sherry fuel some bravado. “Yeah, right. Not a single care. I mean, sure, I can’t afford an apartment of my own. I have no privacy. I wanted to go to college, but my mom is broke and I’m not smart enough to get a scholarship, so I have to work a bullshit job that pays nothing. But not a single care! Please. Your generation had it way better.”

“You fucking kids don’t know how good you have it. When I was young, if you were at all different, you’d get the shit kicked out of you all day, every day, until you learned to hide it and pretend to be like everybody else. Everybody these days thinks they’re oppressed, but you have no idea what real repression is.”

“You mean oppression?”

The man cocked his head. “Isn’t that what I said?”

Liam shifted. All he wanted was for all of this to be over. To get to a gas station where he could call his mom, get back home, and forget all of this ever happened.

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself back in town, safe and sound. But when he opened his eyes, Sherry was still gone and this strange, intense man was still in front of him.

“I grew up on a farm.” The fisherman spat through his teeth and moved a step forward, narrowing the already short distance between them.

The air grew tense as he towered over Liam, like a rattlesnake raised and ready to strike at any moment.

“It used to be my job to slaughter the animals. Cut the heads off chickens, slit the pigs’ throats, bash the cows’ skulls in.”

I really should’ve taken my chances on the road.

As the man stalked ever closer, Liam backed up several paces. His heel touched the water, soaking through to his sock.

“The only time in my life I ever felt free was when my hands were soaked in blood. There’s dignity in that. In raising and slaughtering your own food.”

Liam clenched his jaw to keep his chapped lips from trembling. He gripped the handle of the tackle box so hard, his fingers ached. Would he have to swing it? It was a solid piece. “No, I get it, man. Living off the land. That’s the way to do it. I wish I could do that.”

“We all have a part to play.” The man smiled, and it was like thunderclouds parting, letting in a glimpse of the sun. “Well, let’s get out of here, huh? It’s getting dark.” He stepped aside, gesturing for Liam to lead the way to the truck.

Laughing to hide his growing anxiety, Liam skirted past the man toward the truck. He was in it now. He didn’t want to be rude. If he played along and agreed with everything the guy said, then he could avoid another direct confrontation.

As he trudged up the path, the crunch of footsteps behind him fell faster, harder, and Liam’s instincts slammed into high gear. Before he could turn or even open his mouth to yell, the air shifted, and the strong scent of sweat and fishy stream enveloped him. Seconds later, something wrapped tight against his throat.

He dropped his fishing gear and clawed at the thing constricting his airway, fear gripping his chest. His fingernails scratched his skin as he tried to get some kind of grip on the line strangling him. The man behind him seemed to enjoy the struggle, soft grunts of excitement filling Liam with even more terror.

Pain blazed through him like fire as he gasped and wheezed to catch a breath. The harder he struggled against the fisherman’s hold, the more the man seemed to get off on it, those menacing grunts accelerating like a lover’s.

Liam gagged against the pressure in his throat and the smell of stale coffee on the man’s breath.

The line dug into Liam’s flesh, splitting it open until blood seeped from his neck and down his shirt.

His strength evaporated, and he fell to his knees. The fisherman fell down on top of him, pressing his face and body all the way to the ground and tightening the line around his neck. He felt the length of the man’s tall body pressing into him, shoving him deeper into the moist dirt beside the stream.

A car zoomed by on the bridge above, briefly blotting out the man’s satisfied groans.

But Liam’s world grew smaller and darker. All he could see or taste was dirt.

Liam tried to push himself up, tried to get out of the man’s death grip.

But he couldn’t feel his legs anymore, or his hands, only the pain in his neck, the smears of blood and the bites of tiny rocks on his cheeks. The world, impossibly, grew darker.

Darker…

The man’s grunting was the only sound.

Then silence.

Chapter Two

Detective Justice Hall was having a hard time focusing.

It wasn’t just the pain radiating from his spine like bolts of lightning shooting into his hips and neck—a reminder of a fight to the death he’d narrowly won seven days earlier. It wasn’t that a mountain of paperwork threatened to buy him. And it wasn’t that every few minutes a new message was coming to the station, to his phone, or to his email from Justin Black’s insane fan club threatening to kill him in various uninspired ways.

No. It was that five days had passed since he’d proposed to his girlfriend, and she still hadn’t answered. He was starting to wonder if she ever would.

His phone buzzed next to his keyboard. Justice’s heart leaped into his throat, and he silently prayed that this time it would be Heather. Bracing himself, he flipped the device over and peeked at the screen. He groaned in disappointment.

Another unoriginal death threat from the salivating horde. He wondered what Justin would think if he knew how painfully predictable his fandom was. Blah, blah, blah, you’re a traitor. Blah, blah, blah, we’re gonna tear your guts out.

Blah, blah.

“Come get some, you derivative little bitches.” He tossed his phone onto the desk.

He hadn’t wanted to give an inch in this fight, but the time had come to change his number. Under normal circumstances, he would’ve been able to ignore the constant onslaught of messages. Just put the phone on silent.

But being on the edge of his seat waiting for Heather’s answer complicated things.

It didn’t help that she was pregnant with his baby, who might or might not be evil incarnate, given who its father was.

Justice didn’t really want to think about that either. He didn’t want to think about Heather, because that situation was out of his hands for now.

And he didn’t want to think about Justin or his ravenous fans because…well, he never wanted to think about Justin. So what the hell was he supposed to think about?

The only thing stopping him bouncing off the walls like a toddler who’d just sucked down three espressos was his aching back. And social scrutiny, of course. The invisible cage that followed him everywhere.

Trying to focus on his paperwork was a joke—a nonstarter—so he sat back in his chair, rolled to the edge of his cubicle, and scanned the office. Detective Graves stood at his weird chest-high desk across the way, scowling at the screen and tapping his mouse pad. Such an unpleasant, stiff, angry man with his buzzed head and top button done up. Justice always got the sense Graves didn’t trust him as far as he could throw him.

Good instincts, that one.

“What the hell are you staring at?” Graves snapped, startling Justice out of his own brain for a second. The son of a bitch was observant too.

Justice shrugged and kept looking. Detective Marissa Spero, Justice’s only remaining real friend in the office, was away from her desk. But her knee-length black blazer was slung over the back of her chair. He wondered where she’d run off to. Maybe he could offer to help with whatever case she was working on, get his mind off his own heaping pile of bullshit for a while.

He stretched his shoulders, stifling a groan as a dull ache rippled through him, and peeked around the corner of his cubicle wall to see if Henry was at his desk. He wasn’t, and Justice couldn’t help feeling relieved. To the rest of the office, and to Henry himself, they were on good terms again. After all, when Justin Black’s fan club stormed the office trying to tear out Justice’s throat, Henry had thrown the first punch.

Though Justice appreciated that, he wasn’t prepared to forgive his old friend for spying on him. For breaking his promise to keep Justice’s activities on the down-low. Henry had betrayed him, so now Justice viewed him in the same way he regarded everyone else…as untrustworthy. Justice would be friendly and smile and pretend, but he would never trust Henry again.

Turning his back to the desk, he glanced over at Sheriff Eliza Galvez, who stood at the far edge of the room talking to Lieutenant Kovak, the head of Narcotics. She poised her thumbs in her belt like an old cowboy. Her hair was pulled back in an exceptionally tight ponytail. She was starting to lose a bit of hair around the edges of her forehead. He almost wanted to tell her that but decided he was already on thin ice with his boss.

When was he not on thin ice with her? He might as well buy a pair of skates to dress the part.

Granted, at the last press conference, she had stood up for him.

Justin’s fans had stormed the station, causing a giant scene that resulted in officers using pepper spray and nightsticks to contain the mob.

Afterward, Eliza threw her total support and confidence behind Justice, calling him one of the best detectives on the force. She further emphasized that all unsanctioned and violent protests would be handled in a similar fashion.

Though Justice didn’t like to admit it, Eliza’s praise made him feel all warm and gooey inside. He’d thought she’d finally laid her suspicions of him to rest.

For exactly twelve hours, he had breathed a little easier.

That was, until he came into work the very next day and she was back to treating him like a criminal. He didn’t understand what had changed, but her behavior toward him had only grown colder and more detached. What did she know, or what did she think she knew?

At least the press was on his side, more than ever before, now that he’d bared his deepest, innermost trauma to the world. Not that Justin’s fans had given him much choice. He’d confessed to being Timothy Stewart, the boy who infamous serial killer Justin Black kidnapped, systemically tortured, and raped.

And the salivating reporters couldn’t get enough of him. Local hero cop with a dark past. He was Bowe City’s own caped crusader. They called every day, asking for interviews and quotes, desperate for any scraps he might consider tossing them.

Justice gave them nothing, and he tried very hard not to let his head swell too much.

His phone vibrated. What is it this time? A murder simp calling to tell him his time on Earth was growing short? Or a reporter simp calling to ask why he was such a fabulous guy?

God, it was hard being so popular.

Justice tensed at Heather’s name on the display, noting how his whole body tingled.

He took a deep breath and swiped to answer. “Hey. There you are.”

“Hi.” She sounded so small, her raspy voice fading. He wondered if maybe she’d been in court that morning arguing a case, or if she was just nervous. “I’m ready to talk. Can you meet for dinner tonight?”

“Of course. Yes. A thousand percent.”

“Meet me at Abuela’s at six?”

“My favorite. And you got it. How have you been doing?”

But Heather had already hung up. Justice lowered the phone, heart plopping like a rock in his stomach. That wasn’t good. She was going to say no. He could taste it like acid in the back of his throat.

“Yo, Justice?” He flinched as Marissa stepped up out of nowhere behind him and set a hand on his battered shoulder. “Stressed much?”

Me? Nah. Just healing up from another near-death fight. Loads of bodies piling up on my ranch. Trying to keep Galvez from discovering why the close rate is so low in this department. You know, the usual.

With her other hand, she popped a hard candy into her mouth before brushing imperceptible lint from her purple suspenders. “Why don’t you tag along on a missing persons, take your mind off of things?”

“You read my mind.” Justice hopped up from his seat, slipping his phone into his pocket as he followed Marissa out of the office and into the parking lot. It was bordering on seven thousand degrees outside, and the humidity was thicker than jellied brains. The sweat was immediate—he was fresh one moment, sticky the next—and he donned his off-white cowboy hat to keep the sun out of his eyes.

Marissa slipped on her oversize sunglasses, and together, they loaded themselves into an unmarked department SUV with her behind the wheel. Justice preferred it that way. Driving had a tendency to hypnotize him, taking him out of his conscious brain. And Justice’s subconscious could be a very dangerous thing, especially when someone else was around to witness the shenanigans.

“You doing okay, sport?” Marissa rolled up the sleeves on her white button-down, cuffing them at the elbow.

Justice nodded. “Just got too much on my mind.”

“Maybe this’ll help distract you.” She flicked through her phone before handing it over. Justice studied the photo of a young man on the screen—no more than twenty. He had thick, curly red hair, bright-brown eyes, freckles, and a goofy smile on his face.

She started the vehicle. “That’s Liam Tanner. His mother, Linda, reported him missing yesterday. Three days ago on Friday, he and his girlfriend were out driving country roads when they got into a fight and she kicked him out of the car. Nobody has seen or heard from him since.”

Justice placed her phone in the center console as she drove away from the station. “How far out in the country?”

“The girlfriend said it was near the county line, about twenty miles outside the city on FM five twenty-three. She remembered passing Poppy Creek a few minutes after throwing him out.”

“Did he have his phone on him?”

“Nope. She drove away with that too. He was wearing high-top sneakers, jeans, a black t-shirt, and a chakra stone bracelet.”

Justice perked up at that last detail. He’d always liked minerals, and he liked other people who liked minerals too.

“Have we tracked his credit cards?”

“No credit cards. Apparently, Liam was a strictly cash sorta guy.”

“Man after my own heart.”

Marissa scoffed. “His girlfriend wasn’t sure if he had any cash on him, but his mother said he didn’t have much money in general.”

“If he had no cash and no phone, he probably had trouble getting into contact with anyone.” Justice rubbed his scruffy chin. “Maybe he’s spiraling after the fight with his girlfriend. He could be crashing with a friend. Or heck, maybe he tried hitching his way back to town. For all we know, he could’ve gotten a ride to Vegas with some trucker.”

“His mother seems convinced he would’ve at least contacted her so she wouldn’t worry. She says this is out of character.”

That was never a good sign.

Justice’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He quickly checked to see if it was Heather calling back, but it was just a murder simp, so he silenced the device and put it away. Talking to Marissa was the best distraction he’d had in days. He was going to soak it up as much as he could.

Justice reigns, no matter the cost.

Justice Hall’s carefully constructed life as Elmaeder County Sheriff’s Office’s own caped crusader is spiraling out of control. His girlfriend is pregnant with his baby, Justin Black’s insane fan club of serial killer wannabes are threatening to come for him, and the bodies of the criminals he’s killed in the name of justice are piling up on his ranch.

Worst of all? He suspects his boss—the county sheriff—is onto him.

If he can’t restore her faith in him, he’s going to lose everything. His job, his freedom, and the life he so desperately wants with the woman he loves. Read More