The vehicle stopped exactly where Mac predicted. Only one figure was visible through the windshield. The man got out. As soon as he closed the vehicle door, Mac launched himself at his midsection and tackled him. They rolled in the damp earth. The man was thin and wiry and squirmed out from under Mac. Jumping to his feet with the speed of youth, the man whipped out a switchblade.
“Oh, you want to play with knives?” Mac pulled his father’s KA-BAR from its sheath on his ankle. The KA-BAR was more than a knife. It was a jungle survival tool that could chop wood, slash through foliage, and still maintain an edge sharp enough to slice ripe tomatoes. That flimsy, folding blade was a butter knife in comparison.
Mac lifted his gaze from the weapon to the man’s face and got his first good look at him. The man was just a kid.
He was beyond thin, nearly gaunt. The sallowness of his skin and the hollows in his cheeks marked a lifetime of poor nutrition. Silver hoops pierced his ears, nose, and one eyebrow. Shaggy jet-black hair hung in points across his forehead like a Japanese anime character. From behind the thick fringe, insolence shone from stubborn dark eyes. His gaze dropped to the KA-BAR. He licked his lips and shifted his weight, uncertainty crossing his face.
“Drop the knife. I don’t want to kill you.”
“Can’t do that.” The kid adjusted his grip.
“Who told you to follow me?” Mac asked. “Freddie?”
The kid didn’t respond, but Mac could see the affirmation in the surprise on his face.
“I know Freddie a hell of a lot better than you,” Mac said.
Silver rings swayed as the kid shook his head. “Then you know I can’t cross him.”
Mac sighed. This kid could be the Christmas Past version of him. But damn it, he didn’t want to hurt him.
With a stubborn sneer, the kid lunged. The awkwardness of the movement suggested he hadn’t trained with Freddie very long.
Mac stepped aside, out of the path of the knife, and brought the hilt of the KA-BAR down on the kid’s wrist. The knife fell to the dirt.
“Ow.” The kid clutched his wrist and turned to run away.
In one motion, Mac kicked the switchblade away and grabbed the kid by the neck of his shirt. He hauled him against the side of the SUV. Pinning him, Mac searched his pockets for weapons but found only a bag of weed and a cell phone. “What’s your name?”
“OK, Rabbit, here’s what’s going to happen.” Mac guided the kid toward his bike. “You’re going to leave town.”
The kid spun and jabbed a finger at Mac’s nose. “If you know Freddie, you know why I can’t do that.”
Mac had been close with Freddie’s son Rafe in high school. At the time, Mac imagined that they’d folded him into their family right when he’d felt very much alone. But the reality was a far cry from his teenage impression. Freddie used Mac for all sorts of duties.
“What were you going to do if you caught up with me?” Mac asked, staring pointedly at the kid’s finger.
Rabbit dropped his hand. “I wasn’t supposed to catch you. Just watch you.”
This was just the kind of task Freddie used to assign to Mac. He watched people and buildings, delivered messages, and ran back and forth between Freddie’s camps. Freddie’s attention hadn’t been free. Mac had paid a high price for that “friendship,” and it was still costing him.
“How long have you been working for him?”
The kid blew long bangs out of his eyes. “Couple of weeks.”
“I’m going to give you a piece of advice. Get out now, kid, while you still can.” Mac released the teen. “Once Freddie sets his hook, you’re on the line forever.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
The kid’s simple statement hit home.
The kid didn’t hesitate. “Dad’s in jail. Mom’s dead.”
“How old are you?”
Could have passed for much younger. That was what a life of chronic malnutrition did to a growing body. Mac might have lacked emotional support, but he’d always had a roof over his head and food in his belly.
“So you aged out of foster care.” What the hell was Mac going to do with him? “What about other family?”
“Got an aunt in Jersey I haven’t seen in ten years.”
Mac held up the kid’s cell phone. “Did Freddie give you this?”
Mac took the battery and memory card and ground them both under the heel of his boot. Then he tossed the phone into the woods and handed the kid his helmet. “We both know the only way you’re going to get away from Freddie is to leave town. I’ll give you two options: jail or Jersey?”
Rabbit took the helmet.
“Good choice.” Mac straddled his bike. The kid climbed on the back. The train station was a twenty-minute ride. They used Mac’s smartphone to look up Rabbit’s aunt’s address. Inside the small lobby, Mac studied the schedule and route maps, then he bought a ticket and handed it to Rabbit. “This will take you to Penn Station. From there, you’ll have to grab a local train into Jersey.” He handed the kid fifty dollars for food and sat with him until the train arrived. Mac didn’t leave until the train pulled out of the station. Then he climbed back on his bike and headed back to Scarlet Falls.
The kid should be safe.
But Mac couldn’t say the same about himself. No good could come of being on Freddie’s radar.
The man replayed the news footage he’d taped earlier. Detective Dane strode across the grass in front of the park. Weariness slowed her long lean legs, and with her hair contained in its usual tidy bun, there was no softening the exhaustion lines on her face.
Lovely. Wholesome. Strong. The women he’d kept in his basement prison were nothing compared to that stunning creature.
Detective Stella Dane was perfection.
But why was she working so hard against him? He didn’t think she fully understood his mission. The fallen were a waste of her precious time. That was the whole point. The women he’d killed hadn’t been worthy of her efforts. They hadn’t deserved the air they’d breathed.
Perhaps he’d better send her another message. The police seemed to be missing the meaning of his work. How could he get his point across?
He had to make Detective Dane understand that they were on the same side.
Finished with the scene, Stella practically ran for her car.
Brody caught up with her. His own vehicle was parked on the road. “Where are you going now?”
Sweat dripped down her back. She swigged from a bottle of lukewarm water. A dull ache throbbed at the base of her skull. She’d missed lunch, but there was no way she’d be able to stomach food for a long time.
“I have to go tell Adam Miller his wife is dead and hope he doesn’t already know.” Leaning into the sweltering vehicle, she shoved the keys into the ignition and started the engine. Hot air blasted from the dashboard vents. “I need to call the chief and give him an update.”
“I’ll follow you. Let’s hope no one leaked the victim’s identity.”
“Miller shouldn’t find out about his wife’s death from a news report.” Stella shot an angry glare at the news vans crowding the parking area. On the blacktop in front of the fluttering yellow crime scene tape, the brunette spoke into a microphone.
“Murder is big news in Scarlet Falls,” Brody said, turning toward his own vehicle. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Stella jammed the car into drive. Her fingers clenched the steering wheel all the way to the Miller house. En route, she called Chief Horner and gave him a brief update on what they’d found at the scene. Then she parked at the curb, and Brody pulled in behind her. As they got out of their cars, the door burst open. A wild-eyed Adam stood on the front porch. “Was it her?”
Brody stayed close as Stella approached him.
“Was it my wife they found at the park?” Adam demanded, moving closer.
“Let’s go inside.” Thinking he might want privacy, Stella gestured toward the door. Her hand accidentally brushed his arm.
Adam jerked it away. “Don’t fucking touch me.”
“Mr. Miller—” Stella soothed.
“Fuck you. Fuck your whole police department.” He cut her off, leaning in. Sweat coated his skin, moisture brightened his eyes, and the vein on the side of his neck bulged. “My wife was being murdered by a madman while you investigated me.”
“We need to ask you more questions,” Stella said. “I’d like you to come down to the police station.”
“I can’t believe this. My wife was kidnapped from our home and killed and you still want to question me? You are fucking unbelievable.” Adam shook his head. His fist curled at his side. He wanted to hit her. She could see his barely contained rage rimming his eyes with white.
Apparently so could Brody. He inched forward.
But Stella didn’t budge. “Mr. Miller. I want to find out who killed your wife. You didn’t tell us she had a drug problem.”
Adam ground his molars. “That was two years ago.”
“It might be a factor in her death.” Stella gestured toward the street. Hedges might block the neighbors’ view, but sound traveled. “Are you sure you want to discuss this out here?”
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