Grant shooed his brother away from the door. Rolling his eyes, Mac moved his arms in a grand be-my-guest gesture. The door swung open without sound. Bonus. Grant crossed the space and whipped the blanket off the sleeping man, a skinny guy in his mid-twenties. Pointing his Beretta at the guy’s face, Grant put a finger to his lips. Skinny Guy’s eyes bugged.
Letting Mac cover Skinny Guy, Grant checked the remaining rooms.
“You’re alone?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Skinny Guy’s head bobbed.
“Are you Earl?”
Earl nodded again. He licked dry lips.
Grant patted down Earl’s hoodie and jeans with gloved hands, tossing a switchblade and a 9mm aside. He found another small knife tucked in his boot. The jacket on the floor next to the mattress was empty.
Grant nodded at the gun and knives. “Three weapons. No ID. Earl, you are either really paranoid or up to some serious shit.”
“What do you want?” Earl shivered. The kerosene heater wasn’t large enough for the size of the room, though it did make the room habitable.
Satisfied that Earl was unarmed, Grant stood. “Tell me about your pal, Donnie.”
“I haven’t seen Donnie lately.” Earl’s gaze shifted.
“Aw, Earl. I don’t like to be lied to.” Grant’s gaze flickered to the empty mattress.
“OK.” Earl’s voice quivered. “Donnie crashed here for a couple of weeks after he got out of prison. But then he took off. I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
“Who’s he been hanging with?”
“I don’t know,” Earl lied with a quick jerk of his shoulders.
Grant pressed forward. Earl scooted back, eyes widening. A single drop of sweat dripped down his forehead, and Grant caught a pungent whiff of fear. Good. This little piece of shit was lying to him while his pal Donnie stalked Grant’s family. Earl’s buddy had shot Lee and Kate in cold blood. An image of Lee’s face exploding into a red mist closed off Grant’s throat for a second. Fury rose in his chest, dimming the sound of his conscience. Everything inside him went as cold and hard as the concrete under his boots.
“You haven’t been to war, have you, Earl?” He scanned the man’s cowering frame.
Earl cringed, his head shaking.
“No, you don’t look like the soldier type. You look like a fucking coward.” Grant crouched. He pulled his inverted KA-BAR from the sheath strapped to the inside of his left calf. The seven-inch blade gleamed in the light pouring through the back window.
“Holy shit.” Earl scooted backward.
“The Taliban uses a knife just like this one to behead prisoners, except my blade is nice and sharp. They prefer a dull knife. The longer it takes, the more the victim screams. That all makes for a great episode of Terrorism Today.” Grant grabbed the shrinking man by the throat and dragged him off the mattress onto the cement. “You need a stable surface to do a proper job of it.”
A tear leaked out of the coward’s eyes, and he began to wheeze. “Oh, God. Don’t. Please.”
He squirmed. Grant pressed a knee to his sternum, pinning him in place like the insect he was. Earl’s arms and legs flailed. Grant leaned on his knee. Satisfaction welled as Earl sucked wind.
Grabbing a handful of hair, Grant turned Earl’s head and held the knife to the side of his neck. “If I start on the side, you’ll bleed out faster.” He shifted the knife’s position to Earl’s windpipe. “A slice to the windpipe and you drown in your own blood. Takes a little longer to die that way. Or there’s always the back of the neck. Supposedly, that’s the least painful. Severs the spinal cord and paralyzes you. I’ve seen it done different ways. They all looked like pretty painful ways to go. Do you want me to do this slow or fast? How do you want to die?”
“Your pal Donnie killed our brother and his wife.” Grant let the blade kiss the man’s skin, not enough to cut him, just enough so he could feel the cold steel against his neck. Grant eased off Earl’s chest and let him gulp air for a few seconds. “You’re going to tell me where I can find him, or denying it will be the last thing you do.”
“I can’t. He’ll kill me if I talk.” Earl’s breaths huffed in and out of his mouth like he’d just cleared the base obstacle course in record time. As if he could get over the first wall.
“I’ll kill you if you don’t. Right here. Right now.” Grant shifted his weight forward again.
“OK. Stop,” Earl blurted out. “Donnie is staying with some broad he picked up. She lives in Happy Valley Trailer Park.”
“What’s her name?”
“Tammy. I don’t know her last name or the house number. I only been there once, but she has pigs all over the place. Pig statues outside. A pig flag next to the door. Fucking pigs everywhere. You can’t miss it.”
“Is that the truth?” Grant’s hands shook. Scumbags like the man under his blade were ruining the country he risked his life to defend. Killing this coward would be another service to his country.
“Grant!” Mac grabbed his shoulder. “Snap out of it. You can’t kill him.”
Grant let his brother pull him off. Earl crab-walked twice, stopping when his hands met the mattress. Cringing, he drew his knees up and curled inward.
Grant stood. Adrenaline poured through his bloodstream. He sheathed his knife with fingers that trembled with anger, not fear. The only thing about this encounter that alarmed Grant was the ease and surety with which he’d applied his knife.
“If I find out you lied to me, there won’t be a corner of this earth where you can hide.” Grant pointed. “And you’re not going to talk to Donnie either.”
Earl shook his head. “No. I won’t talk to Donnie.”
“If I find out you warned him, I will find you. Then I will castrate you, behead you, and drop you in the Hudson. In that order.” Grant gathered Earl’s weapons and pocketed them. “I suggest you disappear. You don’t want to see Donnie right now.”
“No, I don’t.” Earl scrambled to his feet and shoved food and clothes into his backpack.
Two minutes later, Grant and Mac were in the rental sedan.
His brother watched him with a wary expression. “I thought for a couple of minutes, you were going to kill him.”
Grant turned toward Scarlet Falls. “Relax. It was all an act.” Mac had never seen him in full combat mode. But Grant knew it wasn’t an act. He could still feel the rage simmering just below the surface of his skin, ready, willing, and able to take an unarmed man’s life in pure anger. Earl wasn’t the man who’d killed Lee and Kate.
Grant had nearly lost control. That couldn’t happen again, but it seemed like the more time he spent with his family, especially Carson and Faith, the angrier he became over Lee and Kate’s deaths. And the closer he came to snapping. Grant had seen it happen. Once a man crossed that line, retreat was not an option. The damage could never be undone.
“Now what?” Mac asked.
“Now we check out the trailer park.” But a stop at the trailer park would put him behind schedule. They’d be late getting back to the house. Grant consulted the map in his smartphone for directions. “It’s only a couple of miles from here.”
“Maybe we should just tell the cops where Donnie is?” Mac said.
“Two problems with that scenario. We’d have to tell them how we got the information, and we don’t even know if Earl was right. I don’t think he was lying, but we can’t be sure until we check out the trailer.”
“I don’t think Earl was lying.” Frowning, his brother studied him.
Grant glanced sideways. “What?”
“I’m worried about you.”
“You’re not fine.” Mac’s voice grew bitter. “Just like I’m not fine. Hannah and the kids aren’t fine either. You know why?”
Grant assumed the question was rhetorical and kept his mouth shut.
“Because Lee and Kate were murdered, that’s why.” Mac crossed his arms over his chest. “We lost our brother. Two kids have been orphaned. No one could possibly be fine under these circumstances.”
Grant sighed. “Then what I meant was that I was as good as can be expected, considering.”
“Bullshit. We might not have spent a lot of time together lately, but I know something is going on with you.”
Grant drove in silence for a few minutes. Mac radiated anger from the passenger seat.
“Right before I got word about Lee, something happened over there.” Grant kept his eyes front, but he could feel the weight of Mac’s gaze. He gave him a quick rundown of the ambush. “I did the math. With the time difference, I could have shot that guy in the face at the exact same time Lee and Kate were being murdered.” He stopped short of telling Mac that every time he closed his eyes, he saw Lee’s face explode. The parallel universe bullshit was freaky enough.
“I can see how that might fuck with your head.” Mac’s hand scratched three days of beard scruff. “Talk to me, Grant. But if you can’t talk to me, find someone who can help. The military has psychiatrists, right?”
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