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The Broken Protector: Chapter 22


I’ve gotta keep my head in the game.

Tonight’s the night.

Come hell or high water, we’re going to close in on the Jacobins and get some answers about what happened to Roger Strunk.

We’ve got our map of the farmstead and a tactical blueprint for storming probable entry points to the still. Took a little bullying from the whole crew for Chief Bowden to cough up their last known location, all while he just sat there mumbling and clipping his damn fingernails.

The chief insisted we didn’t need to go this far, just find ’em another way without risking our own necks in a raid.

There are days when I really wonder about that man.

I think he knows lots of shit and just looks the other way because he’s that desperate to avoid trouble.

Right now, though, he’s absent.

It’s just me, Grant, Henri, and Micah bent over our red-marked map in the back of the station, all of us clustered over Grant’s desk. The Raleigh team is outside in their SWAT van, waiting for orders.

We have our own desks, by the way. They’re just gathering dust because we always congregate here before a ruckus.

Tonight, we’re decked out in black like burglars. Mostly tactical gear that’s years out of date when we don’t get the kind of new, fancy equipment you find in the big cities. No need out here for more than a little basic armor.

Can you imagine us going in like a hostage crisis team over some loose hogs?

Too bad we’ll be facing down another different kind of pig real soon.

I need to focus, and I fucking can’t.

My brain stays glued to Delilah, Lilah, and more Lilah again.

Every time we see each other, it just short-circuits a little more.

All I ever wanted to do was make it right by her.

I also haven’t been able to stop thinking about what she said.

Has she been getting herself in deep with the Arrendells intentionally to dig up info on Emma?

That stubborn-ass woman’s gonna get herself killed.

Another pretty dark-haired girl gone missing.

Fuck, I can’t stand it.

“Lucas. Lucas.” Grant snaps his fingers in front of my face. “You with us?”

“Cap, yeah.” I blink, coming back to reality. All the guys are staring, wondering what fucking planet I left my brain on. “Sorry, just mulling over the Santos case.”

Grant frowns. “You think we’ll find fresh leads on that with the Jacobins? You think they’re connected?”

“Maybe,” I deflect. “Can’t hurt to keep an eye out, can it?”

“Primary target first, but if we catch anything of interest, we definitely won’t overlook it,” Grant agrees. “Now if—”

Mallory interrupts us suddenly, wheeling her chair back from the dispatch computer and pressing the button to mute the mic on her headset. “Would one of you boys mind talking to Mrs. McLeary? She’s real agitated and says she won’t hang up until she talks to a ‘real cop.’” She rolls her eyes, pursing her lips with an irritable snort.

We exchange questioning glances, and then every eye in the room lands on Henri.

He holds his hands up. “All right, all right, I’ll do it. Don’t know why that woman always wants to talk to me.”

“She’s got a thing for Cajun accents.” Micah smirks.

“She’s eighty.” Henri shoots him a scorned look.

“Not a day past seventy-eight,” I throw in mildly. “Still in her prime. Don’t be so closed-minded, ‘mon ami.’ That’s age discrimination.”

“I hate all of y’all,” Henri says, but he snags the desk phone, glancing at Mallory. Mallory nods and taps something on her switchboard, the phone lights up, and Henri lifts it to his ear. “This is Officer Fontenot. What can I do for you, ma’am?”

We sit back and wait.

Henri’s part of this crew—not just comic relief—and there’s no point in going on with the planning if he’s not listening.

His eyes glaze over.

His voice maintains the same pleasant drawl, but we watch him as he closes his eyes and pinches his nose. Then he opens one eye and flips us all off.

“Yes. I’m sorry, ma’am. We’ll see what we can do about the noise—yes, ma’am. Yes, it is a travesty, ma’am. Highly indecent. I absolutely agree. Good people should be in bed right now.” He makes a choking noise, his eyes widening before he scowls at us all, his face red and mouthing, I really fucking hate y’all. “No, ma’am, I’ve got my own bed to go back to, but thank you very much. You have a good night now.”

He drops the phone like he’s been burned, glowering. “Next time, one of y’all take it, ’cause fuck that.”

“What’d your girlfriend want, Henri?” Micah grins wickedly.

“She ain’t my—” Henri sputters, dragging a hand over his face. “Noise complaint. Guess the big house is throwing another charity bash and all the Hollywood weirdos and bigwigs are kicking it up. They’re getting damn loud up there, I guess. She wanted us to know it’s indecent and rude, and demanded we put a stop to it.” He quirks a brow. “So, we gonna put a stop to it or what?”

Grant grimaces. “Any other night we could do a quick drop-in, knock and ask them to keep it down politely, but now’s not the best time. They wouldn’t listen, anyway. We cite the Arrendells, they’ll just laugh it off and take it out on us at the next budget session. So forget it. Mrs. McLeary will wear herself out fuming and fall asleep in the next hour, anyway.”

“We’ve got bigger things to worry about than a little racket,” I point out, but I can barely hear my own voice coming out so distant.

Another party.

And Delilah was with Ulysses, wearing that bracelet, wasn’t she?

She told me she was going to solve Emma’s murder, and I—


I have to find her.

Suddenly, I think I have a pretty good idea what she’s planning, and I can’t go through it again.

I can’t let history repeat itself.

Last time I saw Celeste, we fought like alley cats right before she ran out the door into Montero’s devil arms and now it’s happening again.

“Lucas?” Grant frowns. “You’re white as a goddamned sheet. What’s going on?”

“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.” I push back from the desk.

My intuition jackhammers like a migraine, and there’s pure dread crawling up the back of my neck. “I gotta go check on something real important. I know the plan. If I’m not back in half an hour, I’ll meet you there.”

Folding his arms over his chest, Grant gives me a long, measured look. “Now isn’t the time for personal business, Graves. I need you with me.”

“I will be, I just—” I take a shaky breath. I can’t stand to explain this—especially to him, of all people—only to have him tell me I’m crazy and can’t get over my shit with my sister, so I just shake my head. “This could be life or death, Cap. Please.”

Grant grinds his teeth, considering it, then nods. “Radio if you need backup.”

There’s something knowing in the way he looks at me.

Something heavy.

Fuck, maybe he understands after all.

There’s just no time to explain right now. I only nod sharply and head for the door, stomping out on the sidewalk.

I need to find Delilah now.

I need to stop her before she becomes the next lifeless girl in red.

The Rookery is silent and dark when I show up—a ten-minute walk from the station, five minutes at my ground-eating run.

Looks like Janelle’s already shut down for the night. I try the front door, but no luck.


I circle the building manically, looking for Delilah’s room, hoping she’s staying in the same suite as before. It’s not that hard to remember which one it is when there’s a faint pink echo of the X that was sprayed below her window, now pressure-blasted off and waiting to be painted over.

I peer up at the window, but it’s as dark as the lobby.

“Delilah?” I call softly—then ask myself what the fuck I’m doing. I’ve got a phone and her number.

Snorting at my own dumbassery, I reach into my pocket, turning away.

Then I freeze.

There’s a presence behind me.

Just the faint scuff of a footstep moving real quiet. So close.

I whirl around, my hands coming up defensively.

Right in time to see Culver Jacobin’s broad, toothy grin as a shovel comes slamming at my face.

A big black square of fuck you plows into me.

My head explodes with pain, with darkness, with rattling angry stars mocking me.

Too late.

You’re too late to save her.

The last thing I remember is stretching out a hand like I’m reaching for Delilah as I keel over and knock the fuck out.

Let’s be real.

I wasn’t expecting to wake up again.

Definitely wasn’t expecting to wake up seasick and nauseous with my skull ringing like a church bell and my eyes crusted shut with what I’m pretty sure is blood.

I can’t see a fucking thing.

Everything hurts.

I don’t know if the ground is actually swaying under me or if that’s just the concussion screwing up my vision. I think I hear the faint sound of water, maybe smell it, but it’s hard to smell anything past the scent of my own blood caked in my nostrils.

Groaning, I scrub at my eyes till I can open them, blinking away ugly red shapes.

When I peer up, there’s nothing but the night sky yawning overhead and the distant silhouettes of trees.

Everything looks blurry as hell. I think I need medical attention ASAP because blood loss is a motherfucker. But I manage to sit up slowly, every part of me protesting, my head reeling as I turn around to take in my surroundings.

Big mistake.

I’m immediately clutching at the sides of the little rowboat swaying under me with the movement, struggling not to hurk up my lunch into Still Lake.

What the fuck?

I’m out in the middle of the lake in the same damn rowboat I’d been in with Delilah on our date.

Only this time I’m alone.

There are no oars stowed in the oar locks, either. I feel around clumsily and bend over to look, making myself dizzy all over again.

I think I get what was supposed to happen here.

Culver Jacobin knocked me out, threw me in this boat, and pushed me out onto the lake to bleed to death long before anyone would find me.

Guess it’s a good thing I’m too stubborn to die.

This is not how I wanted to find out I’m right, that he’s the asshole who killed Roger Strunk. Can’t think of any other reason why he’d do this, except he realized we were hot on his trail.

What scares me is that he found me at The Rookery.

He was probably already there looking for Delilah.

Obsessive stalker types get real crazy when they’re cornered.

Some of the more extreme cases in criminal history have killed the object of their obsession because they felt like they were about to lose them, so murdering their prey becomes the only way to keep them according to their warped logic—and to make sure no one else could ever have them after the perp gets caught.

I bet the plan was to get to Delilah before we could stop him, but he tripped over me in the process. Which means—


Fear socks me so powerfully it’s like a fist of pure grief.

Almost like mourning somebody before I even know she’s gone.

I dig at my pockets and—motherfucker, my phone’s not there.

That bastard took it.

With my luck, he probably threw it in the lake, and now it’s sitting useless at the bottom.

I’m well and truly fucked until someone finds me.

If I try to swim out of here in my current condition, I’m definitely going to drown. Swimming and concussions pair with massive blood loss about like red wine pairs with pork rinds.

Maybe I can use my hands to paddle.

It’ll be slow as hell, but better than nothing. Adrenaline gives me urgency and—

—and some kind of God must be with me tonight because I see lights through the trees.

Then I hear laughter, young and rowdy.


There’s someone out there on the lakeshore, and they’re coming closer.

Straining toward those sweeps of light, I watch several high school kids come tearing through the trees by the pier, carrying coolers and zigzagging their way along, using their phones for flashlights.

They should all be at home in bed, but hell, when I was their age I snuck out to drink at the lake and raise hell, too.

I lean toward them, raise my arms, shouting as loud as I can, even if it makes my head ring.

“Hey! Hey!” I call, and they freeze, staring. “Little help out here?”


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