A Taste of... THE HUNTING GROUNDS
Twenty-four-year-old Luca Gaspar laughed and pressed his foot on the gas. It was one of those days when he needed to go fast and feel the wind in his hair, which had become a lot easier after his dad bought him a convertible.
He flipped his phone in the air like a coin, then caught it before tossing it onto the passenger seat and pressing the button on his steering wheel to call Trevor, number three on his speed dial—after Mom and Dad.
Today was his day. The day he’d been working toward and looking forward to for more than a year. He’d finally gotten that promotion, and he was ready to celebrate.
“Yeah?” His friend’s voice came on the line, sounding groggy.
“Bitch, get up.” Luca swerved around a city bus that was pulling over to let passengers off. “It’s eight thirty. How can you be asleep already?”
Trevor groaned. “I gotta wake up at four tomorrow morning so I can get a workout in before my shift.”
“Screw that. We’re blowing off the gym and getting hammered.”
Another low groan was followed by, “Dude, it’s Tuesday.”
“I didn’t mean tonight, dingus.”
“Wait, why are we raging?”
Luca wished Trevor was standing right in front of him so he could grab his pajamas and shake him. “Because as of today, I’m a full-fledged loan officer.”
Trevor grunted. “Surprise, surprise.”
Luca’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Bitch. I’m so sick of everybody acting like my whole life was handed to me on a silver platter. My dad made me work for that job just like anybody else.”
“Yeah, and when he found shrooms in your desk that time, he didn’t fire you. Just like anybody else, right?”
Luca pressed his tongue to his teeth to stop himself from going off on his closest friend. “Are you gonna come celebrate with me or not?”
Trevor sighed. “I don’t really feel like going to a bar.”
“Who said anything about a bar? My dad’s letting me borrow the cabin for the whole weekend.”
“No shit?” Trevor’s voice perked up. “Maybe we can bring some girls back and chill in the hot tub. Why don’t you just pick me up from work on Friday? I’ll bring my bag.”
“Oh, I dunno.” Luca hid his laugh, feigning irritation. “If somebody would rather give me shit about my dad, maybe he doesn’t want to come to my fancy-shmancy cabin and hang out with hot chicks.”
“Dude, I’m so proud of you for getting that promotion.” There was clapping in the background.” I knew you could do it.”
“That’s what I thought, bitch. See you on Friday.” Luca disconnected the call and smiled at himself in the rearview mirror, his confidence tipping into full-blown arrogance.
I’m king of the world.
He turned his music up all the way as he veered off Main Street and headed toward the suburbs. It was a little out of his way, but for the last week or so, Luca had taken a route home that led past the late State Senator Al Daulton’s house.
When news broke that the senator was the da Vinci serial killer—a murderer who carved up women’s faces and left their bodies in what he considered artistic representations of the elements, like Air and Water—everybody at the neighborhood country club had been utterly mortified, including Luca’s father, who used to be the Daultons’ personal banker.
Not a bad gig, considering Al Daulton had been the richest man in the county.
Luca used to brag to everyone how Al, the oil tycoon, would come to his family barbecues. Before, everyone ignored him. Now, when Luca’s dad bragged, people paid attention.
Officially, Daulton was persona non grata. Everyone was distancing themselves from him, claiming they never really liked him, despite their voting record.
Unofficially, the whole neighborhood jockeyed to position themselves closer to America’s latest infamous serial killer. Rumor had it that one of the major streaming services was developing the story. Nobody wanted to be left out of the show.
It was the biggest story in the history of Elmaeder County. And it was still going. No one knew the whereabouts of Al’s son, Darrel, who had been two grades ahead of Luca and Trevor in high school. Supposedly, he was out on some beach in Thailand, drinking and whoring around. People said Darrel didn’t even know what was going on back home.
“He was a jerk then, and he’s a jerk now.” Luca glanced between his phone and the road as he tried to find the perfect next song. “Stop Making This Hurt” by Bleachers. “But dang, that house was sick for parties.”
The Daulton mansion was still taped off, but it seemed the cops and cleaners were all done with their work. It would go on the market soon. Many people had been tortured to death in that house, which made Luca wonder if that would translate to a price cut. He spent the rest of the drive fantasizing about what it would be like to live in those not-so-hallowed walls.
He pulled up to his little three-bedroom. Well, not little. It was over two thousand square feet, with a giant rec room in the basement and three full baths.
But suddenly, it seemed tiny to Luca. He was moving up in the world. It was about time to get a real place, like Al Daulton’s.
He’d ask his dad about it in the morning. After all, Dad was the one who paid for his current place. It only made sense to put all the equity toward something bigger, and probably add a little something on top.
A pool would be dope. Everyone would want to come chill at my place, and the parties would be lit. Work hard, play harder.
Closing the front door behind him, Luca ordered Siri to turn on the lights. He tossed his keys into a ceramic bowl and was about to head up the stairs when he heard a gentle whimper that stopped him in his tracks.
Luca’s heart picked up pace. He turned slowly and followed the sound coming from the kitchen. Pushing the door open, he gasped in horror.
His golden retriever was splayed out on the floor and whimpering. The dog’s back legs were broken in several places, the bones jutting out every which way.
Luca dropped his phone and rushed to the dog’s side. “Oh my god. Laika! What happened?”
A whine was his only response.
His heart seized as he stroked the dog’s head. “It’s okay, buddy. You’re gonna be okay. Who did this to you?”
Something cold and hard touched the back of his neck.
“Don’t move, rich boy.” The intruder’s voice was low and rough, like rocks slowly grinding together. He pressed the gun harder to the back of Luca’s neck. “I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. You and me, we’re gonna open that safe you have in your bedroom. Understand?”
Luca nodded furiously as tears sprang to his eyes. “Calm down, man. I’ll give you whatever you want. Just don’t hurt my dog anymore. Please.”
“Old Yeller is gonna be just fine, so long as you do as you’re told. Now move it, boy.”
With a deep breath, Luca stood on shaky legs. He walked from the room, leaving his best friend crying on the floor. He made his way up the stairs toward his bedroom, the man at his back prodding with his gun the whole way.
Luca didn’t get a look at him…only glimpses of his tall shadow moving along the walls. It was better that way.
“Sir, you can take what you want.” Luca knew he sounded confident. He had learned from his days in ROTC that he held up bravely under pressure. “I haven’t seen your face. When you leave, I’ll just forget this ever happened, I swear.”
His room looked almost as clean as he’d left it, except the closet door hung open. Luca’s shirts and jackets were pushed to the side, revealing the four-foot-tall safe. He walked over to it and quickly punched in the combination. He wasn’t sure what the contents were exactly. About six grand in cash, some of his great-grandmother’s jewelry, a few guns…
None of it was worth dying over.
As the heavy door lurched open, the intruder shoved Luca out of the way to reach the safe. Luca fell to the ornate Turkish rug and glanced up at his open door.
Now’s your chance. Move it!
As he tried to scurry out of the room, a strong hand caught him by the back of his shirt and yanked him upright, still on his knees.
“I gave you what you wanted.” Still staring at his open door to freedom, Luca put his hands up. “I didn’t see you. I don’t know anything. Please, just take the money and go.”
“I don’t think so, princess.” The man pressed his gun to the back of Luca’s head.
Luca closed his eyes, and a scream of primal terror burned his throat. “No! Please don’t kill me!”
The man bashed the pistol into Luca’s skull. He dropped to the floor, his vision spotted and blurry, like flickering club lights after one too many drinks. His eyes fluttered, and he groaned as the man hoisted him onto his shoulder and carried him out of the house.
“It’s time to choose, Tiny Tim. Are you a predator? Or are you prey?”
Justin set his blood-spattered hand on Tim’s shoulder and rubbed gently, sending icy shivers down the nine-year-old’s spine. Tim looked at the knife, clenched tightly in his hand.
Blood dripped from the wound on his side. If he didn’t do what Justin said, he was going to die right here in this little hotel room. The woman strapped to the bed would be forced to watch as Justin sliced his flesh to ribbons. Then, once he was dead, Justin would continue to torture her.
There was no scenario in which she lived. Of the two of them, it was Tim who stood a small chance. His own life was the only one really on the line.
And he didn’t want to die. Even though his whole family was gone. Even though his entire life now was nothing but one horror after another. Even though the wound on his side was throbbing, sending ripples of unbearable agony throughout his body. He didn’t want to die.
He had to live. Because he was the only one who knew the truth. And he was the only one who could ever finish off Justin.
Detective Justice Hall’s eyes darted around the dark room. Panic squeezed his heart like an iron hand as he wrestled with the aftershocks of a nightmare.
I’m not Tiny Tim anymore.
The soft snores of his pit bull, Max, settled Justice into his surroundings.
He was under his own blankets. Right where the new star of the Elmaeder County Sheriff’s Office was supposed to be in the middle of the night.
He sat up and took several deep breaths to calm his racing heart. The dirty-blond hair plastered to his forehead was damp with sweat, despite the constant breeze coming from the humming air conditioner Justice had installed upon his return from Uncle Guy’s in San Antonio two days ago.
Justice stared at the moon for a few moments. Once he felt like he could breathe normally again, he tore his gaze from the window and checked his phone.
Not too much earlier than he usually woke up.
For the past week, Justice had dreamed some version of the same thing, about Spain and the woman in the glasses. About the two Australian girls too. He was waking up in cold sweats, still obsessing over their faces and what he’d been made to do to them.
This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen into this horrific cycle, but it was the first time in years. And he knew why, even if he didn’t want to admit it to himself.
Because he’d started killing again—that was the reason. After years and years of following the straight and narrow, Justice had allowed himself to be yanked off course. And now he was consumed by thoughts of all the lives he’d taken.
His nightmares had started up again with the woman in the glasses. Raffaella.
The two Australian girls had made their reappearance in his dreams while he was in San Antonio.
Justice shuddered, knowing where the dream, and the Australian girls’ lives, ended.
Max snorted loudly in his sleep. Justice could hear him rustling and readjusting in his dog bed.
All was well. Justin wasn’t there. He was in a maximum security prison. Justice didn’t know where, exactly, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that Justin Black was never going to escape.
Even though he had held the knife, it was Justin who murdered the woman in the glasses—Justice had to remind himself of that. He was just a child turning nine that day. It had been hot, early summer. June second.
Ever since then, he’d hated birthdays, and tomorrow would be no different.
He’d told Uncle Guy his friends were having a big party for him. That was why he had to leave so soon.
Thankfully, Justice was sure no one in Bowe City knew about his birthday. He certainly didn’t advertise it on social media or anything.
When he’d changed his identity from Timothy Stewart to Justice Hall at the age of fourteen, he’d been allowed to keep his true birthday. His uncle thought it would be good for him to have some continuity from his old life.
But every year on his birthday, a day Justice knew he was supposed to enjoy, he was forced to remember how, in Spain, Justin had given him the worst possible present.
You were just a child, and there was nothing you could’ve done to stop it. Nothing.
He’d been telling himself that for almost two decades now. Not just about the Australian girls and Justin’s other victims, but about so many things. After Justin was apprehended and Justice was taken into state custody, a litany of shrinks had been paraded in front of him. They all said the same thing about the acts Justin Black had forced him to perform.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
It took years before Justice even tried to believe them. Justin had burrowed so deeply into his subconscious it was still hard for him to distinguish between his own thoughts and what Justin had told him to think.
The therapist Justice started seeing when he was a teenager, Dr. Khatri, compared what Justice had been through to the experience of being in a cult. Justin removed him from everything he had known before, severed all his connections to the outside world, and made him dependent on him. And then he ripped apart Justice’s entire personality and tried to replace it with a reflection of his own sick self.
“You’re my sweet, precious Teeny Tiny Timmy.” Justin used to say that, making full use of that big, friendly smile. “I own you. And one day when you grow up, you’re going to be just like me.”
Justice tossed the covers back and dragged himself out of bed. Max startled and loped after him, his oversize, lumpy shoulder causing him to veer to one side so that he constantly had to course correct.
In the kitchen, Justice ladled some choice cuts from last night’s beef stew into Max’s bowl and returned the Dutch oven to the refrigerator. He put the kettle on and spooned several tablespoons of a special Ethiopian blend into his French press.
While he waited for the water to heat, he scrolled through a few new emails on his phone. He was still waiting for the go-ahead to get back to work. He’d been put on paid leave after a shooting incident, and he was anxious for the officer-involved shooting investigation to be complete.
Plus, there was the call he’d gotten last night from a young man named Karl Boyle that had left him even more rattled. Karl’s girlfriend had gone missing six months ago, and he wanted Justice’s help to find her. Justice’s help, not anybody else’s.
After pouring the boiling water in the press, Justice left the coffee to brew. He walked into his bathroom, stripped off his boxers, and gazed into the mirror. The wounds he’d sustained in the struggle with Al Daulton eleven days ago had faded into yellow discolorations under one eye and on his chest.
Justice smiled as he picked up his toothbrush. Not bad for a rookie.
He jumped when his phone rang in the other room. Still nude, he raced over and checked the display before answering Eliza Galvez’s call.
“Good morning, Sheriff.” Justice’s voice sounded relaxed and easy. Nothing at all like he felt.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, Hall.” She was breathing heavily, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “I thought I’d get your voicemail.”
“You didn’t wake me. Early to bed, early to rise. That’s my motto.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m calling to let you know that you’ve been cleared of any wrongdoing in Senator Daulton’s shooting. Congratulations, Detective.”
“That’s great news.” Justice wouldn’t have said he was worried about the review itself, given the man he’d killed had been an unhinged serial killer with seven confirmed victims. Justice had rescued the eighth from Al’s basement moments before she met the same fate.
But when a little knot of tension released in his neck, Justice realized he’d subconsciously been sweating ever since going toe to toe with Daulton.
After all, Justice hadn’t been forced to kill Senator Daulton.
That had been a choice.
He walked back to the bathroom.
Galvez spoke over a sound like the whir of a blender. “That means you can resume your duties, but you can take off a couple more days if you’d like. I understand you must be pretty shaken by the incident. Sure you don’t want to see the department shrink?”
His muscles tightened at the very thought of it. “Nah, I’m good. So good that I’d like to come back today.” He leaned toward the mirror and rubbed his scruffy beard. He hadn’t trimmed it once since he’d been put on leave. “Listen, I got a call last night from a guy named Karl Boyle. He and his girlfriend, Michelle Reed, used to work at Eastwind Farm. She was one of the girls who went missing. In her case, it was six months ago.”
“That’s Lester Reynolds’s farm?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Justice had investigated the farm because two of Al Daulton’s victims, Luiza Ruiz and Loree West, had been seasonal workers there. Working alongside Narcotics—and doing some extracurricular activities that might have stretched the meaning of the word legal—Justice learned that a lot of nefarious and illegal stuff was going on out there.
But since he’d been looking for a serial killer at the time, and he’d personally confirmed that Lester was not the killer, he hadn’t had the chance to follow up on the rest.
“Why did he call you?”
“He got my number from one of the witnesses I interviewed at the farm.”
“You think he has a case?”
“I do. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to look into this personally.” Justice tapped his fingers on the sink in quick succession. “Something’s happening to Reynolds’s workers. They’re going missing, and the ones who are left are scared out of their minds. I need to find out what’s happening.”
“You don’t think they might’ve been more of da Vinci’s victims?”
“I don’t. Da Vinci put his victims on display. That was the whole point. I’d be shocked if he had more victims we don’t know about. Either way, we need to find out what happened to these people. I know Detective Graves is assigned to missing persons now. I don’t want to step on any toes.”
“Hmm.” Galvez was quiet for a long moment. “I’m officially assigning you to the case.”
Hallelujah. He’d been half expecting her to tie him to his desk until he settled back in.
“I just got a few things to put in order around here. I’ll see you at the office at nine.” He said his goodbyes and hung up. Then he lifted his arm to sniff his armpit, wrinkled his nose, and turned on the shower.
Justice closed his eyes as he let the water run over his face. Now that Galvez was assigning him to the hemp farm’s missing persons cases, that meant he had an excuse to work with Deputy Olivia Johnson again, the uncomfortably beautiful and blatantly flirtatious narcotics cop. She’d tipped him off about the other problems at Eastwind in the first place.
Or maybe he should try to find somebody else in Narcotics to give him a hand. The last thing he needed was to be distracted by those big blue eyes.
Justice stepped out of the warm stream and reached for the pump on the shampoo bottle. He immediately paused when he noticed a small, striped bark scorpion in the corner of the shower. It had a faded caramel body with two black stripes along its back.
He’d heard that striped barks were the most venomous scorpions in the U.S., but Justice had been living alongside them most of his life with no trouble.
“Sometimes things that look dangerous are actually innocent. And sometimes things that look innocent…” He bent down and held out his hand. The scorpion crawled onto Justice’s palm, and he stroked its back lightly. “Isn’t it funny? If most people were to see us together, you’re the one they’d be afraid of.”
Justice stepped out of the shower and walked out onto his back porch. The cool morning breeze caressed his wet body, exhilarating and calming all at once. He set his hand on the railing, palm up, so the scorpion could crawl off.
“Good luck. Keep to the shadows so you don’t get caught.” He turned and walked back inside, then sighed as he stepped back into the warm stream.
Good advice for any of us.