Chapter One ~ Justice
For the record, the name Justice wasn’t a predisposition from birth.
During my late teens and early twenties, I heard “You were certainly misnamed, weren’t you?” more times than I should probably admit.
I was a badass, immortal demigod. What the hell was I supposed to do with my time?
Apparently, I was supposed to live up to my name. At least, somewhat. Vigilante justice still counts as justice, right?
The cool part about bringing justice to humans was that I got to do a whole lot of ass-kicking as part of the plan. Taking out bad guys was how I stayed so chill.
It wasn’t like I had anyone to talk to about my problems. Someone to blow off steam with. I had no friends, no family, and I worked alone. And to be honest, I liked it that way.
Having people in my life meant I had to care about someone other than myself, and my past experience taught me that caring was a surefire way to emotional pain. Best to avoid it at all costs.
Today’s brand of justice involved this creepazoid who was into human trafficking. Yeah, life sucked for those young women he had locked inside that barn across the way, but honestly, I wasn’t focused on them, their welfare.
I was focused on ending his life. And if that made me an asshole, well, look at it this way: my killing him would save them.
Win, win, right?
I’d tracked my quarry to the middle of nowhere in Texas, which could mean I was practically anywhere in this great big state. More specifically, we were somewhere between San Antonio and Houston. This thug probably thought he was safe from the authorities.
Except I wasn’t an authority. Not that kind, anyway.
The area I’d tracked him to was a good twenty miles off the interstate and then down a barely there two-track, surrounded by three-foot tall weeds and a ten-foot fence with razor wire twisted along the top. It was an old, abandoned stockyard, which, based on the fencing and the video cameras hidden under eaves and attached to light poles, I guessed the current occupant had repurposed and used frequently enough to justify the cost of all this security.
I wasn’t sure how long he’d been a human trafficker. Online details, even on the dark web, were sketchy at best. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out how he found buyers for the women he kidnapped and sold into slavery, which was too bad because I wouldn’t have minded offing those motherfuckers too.
The list of women who had disappeared from various places in Texas, never to be heard from again, was far too long to all be attributed to one guy.
Or so I thought—until I saw this setup.
Tonight was going to be the end of an era.
It had been a bitch getting here undetected, which was another check in my nemesis’s favor. All that Texas flatland. No trees, no buildings, no towns. If someone were to put this place on a map, they should seriously consider calling it Nowhere, and not as a joke.
Rotting, wooden pens where they once separated the cattle to auction them off surrounded a small, two-story building with a wide covered deck all around it. Grass as tall as me sprouted up around it, practically camouflaging the place.
That building in the middle was where buyers used to stand and observe the various pens, so they could select which cows or steer they wanted to purchase. On the far side of this maze was a second, larger building that looked like a barn, but after researching online, I learned it used to be a boardinghouse for the ranch hands, or whatever people who worked the stockyards were called.
This was where Ignacio the Human Trafficker was keeping his “merchandise.”
The building was also currently on fire, which was problematic. Yes, for whomever was inside, but also for me, because I had my doubts that Ignacio was still in there, given the flames licking at the roof. But I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, since I hadn’t noticed anyone leaving this area in the last half hour.
It was possible he set the blaze deliberately and had bailed long before I’d arrived, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense if his merchandise was still inside, and I was certain they were. I could feel it. I know that sounded weird, but a lot of things about me were weird.
More likely, the fire had started due to faulty wiring or some other entirely accidental issue, which meant Ignacio could very well be in there, trying to figure out how to save those women. Not because he had any consideration for them as people—they were only potential income he wasn’t willing to lose.
So I had to go in there, find Ignacio, kill him, and if there was time, free those women, or at the very least, point them toward the path to freedom.
Ugh. It was so much easier when I snuck in while the bad guy was sleeping and popped a cap in his skull. Boom. Done. Problem solved, on to the next one.
’Cause there was always a next one. If humanity did one thing exceptionally well, it was abuse one another.
Grateful for the new moon as well as my hooded black T-shirt, darkish skin, and black leggings, I flipped up the head covering, palmed my SIG P320, and ran toward the burning building, diving into the maze of fenced corrals. It was more complicated this way, but I was less likely to be detected than if I were running around the outside, where there were more cameras and less places to hide.
I made it to the auctioneer’s building in the center and flattened myself against the rough wooden side so I could catch my breath and scope out my surroundings again. From this vantage point, I could see plumes of smoke pouring from the roof of the boardinghouse, even against the midnight sky.
The faint sound of a siren caught my attention.
Shit. It didn’t seem likely that Ignacio would have installed an alarm tied to the closest fire department. He wouldn’t want to take the chance that someone might see something about his operation that he didn’t want them to see.
Which meant some Good Samaritan had noticed this fire, out here in Bumfuck, Egypt—er, Texas. For Christ’s sake, there was zero civilization for at least fifty miles. Yet whoever had realized the building was ablaze had obviously called 9-1-1, and now a freaking fire truck was heading my way.
This was a complication I did not need. The fire itself was bad enough, even though it wasn’t that large yet; not that it would take long for it to consume this building made of hundred-year-old kindling.
But as soon as Ignacio heard that siren, he’d bolt, regardless of how much profit he was going to lose by leaving those women for the fire department to discover. It was still better than going to prison and losing potential for all future income.
Crouching and running, I moved through the maze of pens, watching for movement, for a body to come hurtling out of the boardinghouse.
And then they did, multiple bodies. Ignacio had a lot of guards, which wasn’t surprising given the type of “merchandise” he dealt in. There was always at least one prisoner who was willing to risk her life by running. Hell, if I were in their situation, that one would be me.
The last guard was straggling quite a few feet behind the rest. Flipping the safety on, I tucked my gun into the handy side pocket on my leggings, then, as he jogged past my hiding place, I secured my shoe on the bottom slat, flipped my other leg over the top of the fence, and hopped down on the other side, grabbing the guy by the back of his shirt at the same time.
He went flying around in an arc and slammed into one of the rotting wooden fence poles, which cracked and splintered from the impact. Before he could shout, I rolled him onto his back and straddled him, pressing my gun to his temple and covering his mouth with my other hand. His eyes went wide for a moment and then he lifted his hands in surrender.
I was a totally suspicious person, so I painstakingly, slowly lifted my hand, anticipating a cry for help, but to my surprise, he stayed quiet.
“Good man,” I acknowledged.
He just kept staring up at me.
“Do you speak English?” Courtesy of my mom, who was from Columbia, and an extensive trip around South America when I was in middle school, I spoke fluent Spanish and enough Portuguese to get by, so as long as this guy was able to communicate via one of those three languages, we’d be able to have a nice, friendly chat.
“Where’s Ignacio?” I needed confirmation that he was still in the building. The way that group had taken off, every man for himself instead of protecting the person who would likely have been right in the middle, was a big hint.
Without speaking and without breaking eye contact, the guy pointed at the burning structure.
I pushed the barrel of the gun more insistently against his face.
“I swear, I swear,” he blurted. “He won’t leave the women.”
I was perfectly okay with killing the hired help if the situation warranted it on these missions, but today, given the flames and the fire truck headed our way, there wasn’t time. And my gut told me this guy wasn’t going to rat me out or warn Ignacio that I was coming. He just wanted to get the hell away from this place.
Besides, my end game was obviously still inside, and I needed to get in there and take him down before the fire did.
Not that letting him burn to death or die from smoke inhalation was off the table; it was more that I needed proof that he was truly dead. And the only way to guarantee that was to do it myself.
The siren abruptly stopped and then there was a crash, the sort of sound a giant truck made when it barreled through a chain-link fence.
Crap. They were closer than I thought. I needed to get in there, take down Ignacio, and get out again, undetected. I wasn’t in the mood to come up with an explanation for my presence at the scene of a burning building in the middle of nowhere to a bunch of rural firefighters.
My record wasn’t exactly squeaky clean, and maybe, just maybe, there were a couple of arson accusations on that record.
Climbing off the guard, I sprinted toward the building, running to the side that seemed to be least on fire. There wasn’t a door over here, but there were plenty of windows, although most were covered by plywood. I used my elbow to break the glass on the single available pane, and, ignoring the shards stabbing through my gloves as I grasped the sill, I dove inside and immediately crouched low to the floor, lifting my shirt to cover my nose and mouth as I used my extraordinary vision to check out my surroundings.
I was in an office, based on the lacquered desk and cracked faux leather chair I could see through the haze of smoke and the emergency lights that hadn’t yet been taken out by the fire. There wasn’t a computer on the desk, but there was an ethernet cable and a rectangular disturbance to the dust coating the flat surface.
How decent could the internet possibly be way out here where there was no civilization whatsoever?
My better-than-average hearing picked up the obvious sounds of a fire: crackling, spitting, a beam or wall giving way and crashing to the ground. And underneath all that, a cluster of rapidly beating hearts and accelerated breathing patterns. One, two, three… Twenty-two. No, twenty-three. That last one was beating more erratically than the others.
Wait. Was Ignacio trapped with all those women he’d kidnapped and tortured and planned to sell off to the highest bidder? The thought gave me a bit of morbid satisfaction as I homed in on their location, pulled open the office door, and swung an immediate left.
Apparently, every single last guard had bolted. Well, most humans were pretty damn afraid of fire, and unless they had a much bigger incentive than a paycheck—firefighters not withstanding—chances were high that they were going to take off.
Someone was still here with those women though, and my bet was on Ignacio, although I had no idea why at this point. Burning to death with his merchandise wasn’t exactly his MO.
But honestly, I didn’t give a shit about his reasons. As soon as I made it to that room they were all apparently locked in, he was a dead man—whether by the flames or a bullet from my gun, I didn’t care so long as I witnessed it happening.
Still crouching, I hurried along a hallway filled with mostly open doorways leading to tiny spaces I guessed were supposed to be bedrooms, based on the bare mattresses lying on the dirty floor in most of them. The windows were covered with plywood, probably an extra precaution to ensure the merchandise didn’t bolt.
Another crash, this one much closer than the fire, should have been a red flag, but I was too focused on my quarry to give it and the accompanying shattering glass any real notice.
So when a closed door suddenly opened as I hurried past, I turned without thinking and was greeted by the flat piece of wood slamming into my face.
The impact sent me hurtling backward and crashing into the wall before sliding to the floor with a thud.
Ah, shit, that hurt! I swiped at my nose, my shirtsleeve and glove coming away streaked with blood. Luckily, I hadn’t lost my grip on my gun, which I started to lift to point at the dark hulking figure looming over me.
Before I could aim, let alone pull the trigger, a hand clamped around the gun from above my head, jerking it so that the barrel faced the ceiling. My finger automatically squeezed the trigger and then plaster and dust and probably all sorts of creepy crawlers—it was an abandoned building, after all—were raining down on me. I released my hold on the gun so I could protect my head from whatever was crashing down from the hole I’d put in the ceiling.
A moment later, I was lifted off my feet—literally—and my back met the wall again while a massive hand held me by the throat, my toes dangling a full six inches off the ground.
One thing about Ignacio, he was good at not being seen. The only pictures I’d unearthed were so grainy, there was no way to positively ID the guy. For all the surveillance I’d performed over the last few months, all I’d caught were brief glimpses that told me he was a man and he had dark hair. By “he was a man,” I meant that he had a masculine build, although it wasn’t overly large by any means.
Not like the guy currently holding my life in his hand. This guy was freaking huge. Giant hands, even giant-er arms. A chest the width of a football field. I tried to lower my head to check him out below the torso, but he tightened his grip and growled, so I finally lifted my gaze to his face.
The moment we made eye contact, three things happened simultaneously. First, something hit me, not like a fist, but this crazy sensation, more powerful than any of the angry feelings I’d had about the bad guys I hunted— or any feelings I’d had about anyone ever, for that matter.
Second, my captor’s eyes, dark in a nearly as dark face, went comically wide.
And third, his hand opened like somebody pushed a button on a remote control, and then I was free falling to the plaster- and dust-strewn floor, so unexpectedly that I didn’t have time to anticipate the impact and I landed hard on my wrist, which protested painfully enough for me to cry out.
Suddenly, there were two other guys standing over me. One of them said in a Southern accent, “Whoa, Ajax, what the hell was that weird feeling projecting from you like the Bat-Signal? And who the hell is that?”
I glanced up to confirm that he was referring to me. Southern Accent had dirty blond hair, pale blue eyes, white-boy-who-likes-to-hang-outside skin, a slightly crooked nose, and insanely kissable lips.
In an attempt to stall so I could gather my clearly broken brain cells, I checked out the third guy. Also tall. Also muscular. And superhot, although in a totally Casanova way. Not in the looks department—honestly, the original Casanova wasn’t exactly attractive—but in a totally I-want-to-have-an-affair-with-him way.
What. The. Fuck. Was. Going. On?
“Oh shit,” Casanova said.
“She’s hot,” Blondie said.
This was officially the strangest assignment I’d ever been on.
Release date: 8/26/2022