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The Broken Protector: Chapter 18

RED HAZE (LUCAS)

Fuck, shit, and damn.

I never should’ve let Delilah go home alone.

I’ve barely made it back to my place before the call comes in.

Another dead body at that little blue house.

This time, there’s no doubt it was murder—and the victim?

Delilah’s ex-boyfriend.

What the actual fuck.

I’m out the door in a flash, not even bothering to change into my uniform. All I can think about is Delilah.

If she’s hurt, if anyone threatened her, if she’s okay after stumbling on another corpse.

If she threw herself into a bad situation because of my big fat fucking mouth.

Too many ifs.

My heart is a tangled nest of thorns.

Whatever the fuck’s going on here just got ten times worse.

When I pull up to the house, every squad car in town lines the sidewalk, lighting up the night in whirling blue and red carnival colors.

Yellow tape circles the fence like a deadly bow on a gift no one asked for.

Everyone’s here but Chief Bowden—go fucking figure.

Micah, Grant, Henri, all of them roaming the scene in uniform.

Henri photographs something by the front door while Grant paces the property with a flashlight, muttering into his radio and throwing down evidence markers. Micah, he’s talking to a small and ragged Delilah.

Her hair is a mess like she’s scratched it raw, or shaken it into a wild mane.

The moment I see those smears of crimson on her bare arms, staining the dress I just ripped off her hours ago, I bolt from the car, my gut vibrating pure regret.

“Lilah?” I gasp, nearly vaulting over the fence. “Did he hurt you? Did he—”

Her head comes up sharply, silencing my words.

It’s not half as bad as the look plastered on her face.

It stops me in my tracks and rips the words from my throat.

She stares at me like did this.

Like it’s somehow my fault.

The hurt that knifes through me is a force of nature, hoisting me up and body-slamming me back into the pavement.

“Stay away from me,” she whispers, her voice trembling—and she edges around Micah, putting his tall put-together albino ass between us. I can’t blame him for looking puzzled, his pale eyes worried as he stops scratching things down on his notepad. “Sorry, I don’t… I don’t want to talk to him, Officer Ainsley.”

I must have the damnedest look on my face.

Because the look Micah gives me is the same sympathy you show a puppy in a kennel when you can’t take it home.

“She’s not hurt, Graves,” he tells me. “She fainted and landed in some blood. Maybe you should go talk to the captain and take a look at what we’ve got?”

Fuck.

I don’t know what to do.

What to say.

What I could ever give up to hold my shattered heart together.

Does she trust me so little after that fight?

Did one shitty dumb omission on my part annihilate whatever fragile faith she ever had in me?

Or does she just blame me for her ex-boyfriend’s death, when I’ve been so obsessed with tracking the Arrendells that I went blind to something else popping off right under my nose?

I don’t notice the harsh fist I’m holding at my side until my hand stings from the tension.

I stay frozen while Micah leans down and mutters something to her. Delilah nods slowly, then looks up, looking past me like I’m made of glass at the sound of a car door slamming and a worried call.

I tear my gaze away from her to see the Bowdens’ personal Durango pulling up to the curve—but it’s not the chief who steps out.

It’s Janelle.

“Delilah!” Janelle calls, fretting as she nearly flings herself against the fence. “Oh, honey, I came as soon as I heard—are you all right?”

Sniffling, Delilah rubs one eye. “…no, not really, but I’m ready to get out of here. He said they just need to photograph me and take my clothes for evidence. But I can’t go back in that house.”

“Don’t you worry, hon. I brought you something fresh to change into, and the neighbors staring through their windows will be happy to let you change next door,” Janelle says cheerfully. “Then you can come right home with me. Your room at The Rookery’s all freshened up.”

At least they have Delilah taken care of.

Which means I need to stop standing here, feeling my heart bleed out all over the grass, and go do my damn job.

I drink in one last look at her, but she’s so pointedly pretending I’m not there she might as well be screaming at me.

It fucking guts me that I can’t just walk over and hold her.

Still, the one thing I won’t do tonight is make things worse.

Stay away, she said.

So I do, tearing myself away and making my way up the front walk, stepping around a couple of evidence markers as I go.

On the porch, Henri crouches down in front of a few scattered photographs, next to a fairly new-looking high-end shoebox, all of them splattered with blood. His nitrile-gloved fingers click away with his phone camera.

I frown, my gut churning with confusion.

“Where’s the body?”

I stop as Henri throws a grim look over his shoulder, then looks up pointedly.

No way.

No fucking way.

I crane my head up and feel my heart turn to ice, this frozen asteroid floating in the dead space in my chest.

Roger Strunk’s dead, empty eyes stare back at me.

He’s been gutted. So neatly and efficiently hollowed out it could only have been done by machine at a slaughterhouse. The man’s just a hollow cavity of meat and bone now.

If I didn’t have a stomach for this kind of trauma, I’d be heaving my guts out on the ground.

His arms and legs have been wedged into the support beams underneath the roof, spreading him out like he’s bound to a kite.

“Motherfucker,” I spit, sickness roiling through me. “Who the fuck does something this sick?”

“You tell me,” Henri drawls. “I’m not from around these parts. Who do you know that’s real good at butchering?”

Henri doesn’t need to say it.

Neither do I.

We both have one guess.

No one else in town has the kind of sweeping farm and slaughterhouse operation like the Jacobins.

Fuck.

“It had to be done somewhere else. Not here,” I say. “Grant find any of the organs in the yard?”

“Nada. No sign.”

“There’s not enough blood,” I growl, hunkering down next to Henri.

I position myself away from the slow drip of blood still trickling down from above. If the photos weren’t evidence, I’d rip the damn things in half when I see them.

Textbook stalker shit.

No wonder she’s so worked up.

No wonder she doesn’t want to see me, when the way I’ve been shadowing her probably makes me seem no better than everybody else making her life miserable.

“They did it somewhere else,” I say again. “Killed him and did their work, then brought him here.”

“What you thinkin’, Lieutenant?”

“Two possibilities.” I frown, rubbing at my chin. “Either one of the hillfolk’s been stalking Delilah this whole time, slashing those nasty red Xs to send her a message, taking those photos, and now killing Strunk like it’s some big gift to her, or…” I trail off.

“Or?” Henri urges.

“Or Strunk was behind the stalking,” I say, and there’s a feeling of rightness to that. “The Xs, the photographs, whatever. Only, somebody else didn’t like it. He wasn’t worthy, so that somebody decided to get him out of the way. They killed him because they were protecting Delilah.”

Henri stares at me for a few seconds with his brows trying to crawl off his forehead.

“That’s some fucked up protection, all right. But about that.” Henri lowers his phone, giving me a grave look. “Got something to show you, Lucas, and you ain’t gonna like it.”


If I could cut off my right arm and make her talk to me again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

I fucking hate leaving Delilah behind, but it’s got to be done.

By the time Bowden finally comes waddling up to the crime scene, still in his pajama top over his uniform slacks, Janelle’s got her bundled into a change of clothes and whisked away to The Rookery.

At least I know she’s safe with someone.

Henri and I leave the others to keep working the crime scene while we head back to the station to log evidence, handing it over to a pale, shaken Mallory.

I put in a quick call to Raleigh.

We need more than a coroner this time. A few forensics people would be nice, whoever can get that body down without damaging the evidence, plus a few more spare officers, too.

Before we left, Grant said he wanted eyes on the crime scene at all times.

I don’t blame him, but there’s just not enough of us here to do that.

The air was suffocating as I read Delilah’s testimony from Micah’s scratch pad on the drive back—and it stays thick as mud in my mind while Henri drags me over to Grant’s desk and the computer we all steal for our workstation.

“So, after that tip about the pig’s blood,” Henri says, clicking through files and chewing at one corner of his mouth in concentration, “I called Rick down at the butcher’s shop. Asked for his security tapes for the last week. Y’all put me on graveyard shift like the pig fuckers you are, and I figured I could do something to pass the time. That’s how I found this.”

He opens a video file.

The media player window shows us a high angled, grainy shot in washed-out color, looking down on the neat, clean, folksy interior of the town’s butcher shop.

A few people wait in line in front of the register, while a few more browse the big glass displays with red cuts of fresh meat, ground sausage, sweetmeats, you name it.

“See there?” Henri taps the screen over the second guy in line.

I squint closer.

I recognize the build immediately.

He’s tall, lanky, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses.

As he turns a little, looking warily over his shoulder, I glimpse his profile, his mouth, the nervous angles of his face.

“That’s him,” I mutter grimly. “Roger Strunk.”

“Mm-hmm. And look what he’s buying.”

Strunk’s turn at the register comes next. He says something I can’t hear, but jolly old Rick smiles behind the counter and comes back with a large waxed paper carton with a plastic lid.

Through the plastic, I see red liquid washing up the sides, staining the interior of the cup.

“Goddamn.” Cursing, I sit back in my chair. “Pig’s blood.” I glance at the timestamp. “Four days ago? The timeline adds up then.”

Henri nods, pausing the video. “We also know he was alive four days ago, though the corpse is fresh enough that I could’ve guessed that. No decay or bloating. No smell. It looks like your second theory was right, mon ami.”

The implications almost knock me down.

“Yeah. We’ve got two stalkers after Delilah—and one didn’t like the competition.” That sits real fucking uneasy with me. If I had a choice I’d have her under guard in a safe house twenty-four seven. “You know our next steps, don’t you, Henri?”

His eyes narrow. “We don’t have a warrant yet, Lieutenant. We don’t even have probable cause. Just because they’ve got butchering facilities doesn’t mean anything. It’s circumstantial. Same logic makes Rick a suspect, too.”

“We’ll find our probable cause,” I snarl. “Let’s get the fuck out there and keep an eye on the Jacobins.”


Not seeing Delilah for over twenty-four hours eats a hole in me like a cigarette burn.

But Micah promised me she was fine when he volunteered for tonight’s stakeout.

She’s holding up bravely, doing everything she could to help the investigation by scouring her memory for details when he dropped by to check on her this afternoon.

I wish it was me.

I wish it was me checking up on her, comforting her, dragging her into my arms.

Offering an apology.

I was wrong.

I’m not one hundred percent sure of that even now, but it’s slowly settling in bone deep.

Maybe I was right about Montero Arrendell killing my sister, but there was something totally different going on with this case.

I let my own bullshit cloud my judgment. I missed the warning signs.

I almost got Delilah killed.

Hell, she’s been terrorized thanks to my blind spots.

I owe her an apology for that.

But she doesn’t want to see me. Even my texts go unanswered.

I try calling once.

Of course, she doesn’t pick up.

Fuck it.

I’m not heaping more stress on her when she’s already upset and dealing with coming home to a dead body for the second time.

So I’ll do the next best thing.

Find out who the fuck has been stalking her and lock him up in the deepest damned hole on Earth.

I slouch behind the wheel of my patrol car, watching for any movements through the trees. It was a bitch for Micah and me to maneuver this damn thing off-road in the woods.

Now we’re parked on a good vantage point at the top of a hill, looking down through the fireflies over the Jacobin farm. The place is nestled in its own little valley, ringed on all sides by trees.

We’re likely not going to be able to back out of this little alcove without making a hell of a racket, but by then it won’t matter.

It’s one o’clock in the damn morning.

So it’s a little fishy that they’re up and working, no matter what kind of early-late hours farmers usually keep.

In the passenger seat, Micah leans forward, folding his arms on the dash and lazily resting his chin on them. The moonlight through the windshield reflects off his white-blond hair, dappled by the shadows of the leaves overhead.

“Now that’s interesting,” he whispers. “What do you think is in those crates?”

I watch as the entire family—a whole tribe, really, some two dozen men—works to fill the backs of several open-top cargo trucks with unmarked crates. The wooden slats are packed so tight I can’t make out a glimpse of what’s inside.

“Could be corn, jared preserves, fresh fruit heading up to market. Any number of other things. Or…”

“Or it could be a big batch of that battery acid they call moonshine,” Micah fills in softly. He’s narrowed in on them with his usual predatory intensity. Sometimes it makes him look more like a battle-hardened sniper than a junior cop. “Maybe even something else. I think we’ve got enough suspicion to land ourselves a search warrant, though.”

My lip curls viciously.

It’s a technicality.

I know it is.

But I’ve seen too many convictions tossed out because someone didn’t do things right.

That’s why we will do this by the book, no matter how much it slows shit down.

I snap a few more photos on my phone, catching the movement below, the unmarked crates, the trucks. My gaze lingers on Culver Jacobin.

In town, he’s always smiling and ambling along, a little too friendly sometimes but harmless, coming off like the town goofball.

Not tonight.

Now, he’s dead serious, grim and focused.

It’s like he’s peeled his mask off, showing something cold and disturbed underneath.

Delilah said she caught him staring in town too many times, and the encounter she described when he came to install her cable box—fuck.

I’d like to find out just how much Culver Jacobin knows about butchering pigs.

“C’mon.” I start the engine. “Let’s head back in.”

The sound of the patrol car echoes over the hills. Everyone down in the valley goes tense, stopping in their tracks.

Neither of us breathe, just waiting.

There’s a flurry of motion, coordinated movements like a flock of crows. It doesn’t take them two minutes to vanish.

Crates flying from hand to hand, disappearing into a massive barn. Doors and windows snap shut.

They’re gone like they were never there.

Just empty trucks with no one behind the wheel and nothing in their beds.

Footsteps in the packed dirt belonging to no one.

“Eerie as hell,” Micah mutters.

“Tell me about it. Let’s get the hell out of here,” I say, backing the patrol car through the trees faster than I should.


I haven’t slept or gone home in at least a day.

By the time Chief Bowden and Captain Faircross call a meeting the next morning, I’ve been staring at crime scene photos till my eyes hurt.

The incident reports with the vandalism and those Xs. The rumors of Roger Strunk around town, someone peering in Delilah’s window, Emma Santos’ body.

It’s all here, but what the hell am I still missing?

I need something to make this all make sense. A motive.

Did it happen because Culver Jacobin is obsessed with Delilah?

I guess he could’ve heard about her before she arrived, done a little Googling, gotten himself all worked up in his crazy-ass mind. Maybe he started scheming in advance, and his plan included kidnapping an Arrendell piece of arm candy and leaving her dead in Delilah’s house to kick things off.

She did say she saw someone running away from the house that first day, after all.

Could’ve been Culver, leaving the body.

He’d fit the description pretty damn well, too.

“Everyone here?” Grant calls.

I lift my head sharply, reaching for my cup of half-cold coffee.

Grant stands in the middle of the room. Even Chief Bowden looks small next to him today, while Micah and Henri drape themselves over chairs nearby. They’ve got the backup from Raleigh out guarding the crime scene.

I don’t notice Grant clearing his throat loudly or looking my way. “And by that, I mean are you fucking awake, Graves?”

“Give me a few more sips, Cap.” I guzzle my coffee, draining half of it in one gulp. “Okay, now talk.”

“The theory we’re working with right now,” Grant says, “is that Culver Jacobin is the most obvious suspect. With how secretive they are, we don’t know who handles the butchering for the Jacobins, but he’d likely have seen how it’s done. Also, he’s shown some interest in the target, so he could have a motive.”

“Trouble is,” Henri says, “that kind of suspicion’s not grounds to arrest him.”

“Maybe not,” Grant answers. “But we can sure haul his ass in for questioning, anyway.”

“We sure it’s Culver?” I rub at one gritty eye. “I don’t know. Something’s not sitting right. Emma Santos was found killed before Delilah even showed up. Before Culver ever met her. Yeah, it’s possible he could’ve searched her or heard about her around town, but that doesn’t explain the instant obsession.”

Bowden frowns, resting his hands against his large belly. “Emma Santos wasn’t killed. She died of a self-inflicted overdose. That case has nothing to do with this one.”

“I have a theory that—”

“—that you’ve got a bug up your ass about the Arrendells. We know. You’ll do anything you can to string these two cases together and shackle it to them,” Bowden replies impatiently. “Give it a rest, Lucas. If you can’t be objective about this, I’ll pull you off the case.”

Goddamn.

It’s probably the first time in ages I’ve ever heard that useless lump exert his authority in any meaningful way. I work my lips helplessly, casting a glance at Grant, but he only shakes his head, his eyes hard with warning.

Not now. Let it go, man.

My guts twist.

There’s a waiting silence in the room.

Gritting my teeth, I look away and force myself to say it.

“Yes, sir.”

This isn’t over.

Also, I’m not the asshole who brought up the Arrendells.

What if I wasn’t wrong after all?

What if—

Goddammit, something stinks and it’s right in front of my nose. Close enough to smell it and sour your stomach, but almost too frigging close to see clearly.

What the fuck am I missing?


The meeting ends after working over a few more theories and divvying out assignments to follow up on the case.

Henri goes off to bring in Culver.

I wind up on stakeout duty at the house, keeping me far away from the station when they bring that little hill rat in. That was the chief’s decision.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

As I get up to head out, Micah catches my arm, leaning in close.

“She’s okay. You don’t need to worry,” he growls.

A knot I hadn’t realized I’ve been holding on to all day loosens in my chest. “What, you saw her?”

“On my way in.” Micah nods. “Captain gave approval for me to fetch her things, take them from her house to The Rookery. She’s holding up all right. Stubborn as hell, that woman.” He smiles. “The two of you are a lot alike. No wonder you fight like wolverines over the dumbest damn things.”

“It was a pretty dumb fucking fight.” I smile faintly.

“Most fights are. We get ourselves all worked up, then later, we realize it was all egos and useless crap that got in the way of time we could’ve spent together.” He sounds like he’s talking from experience, and he gives me a long look, letting go of my arm. “Give her time. She’ll talk to you again.”

I hope like hell he’s right.

I’d give anything for a chance to make it right again and bring my pretty Lilah home to my arms.


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