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The Broken Protector: Chapter 23

RED AS SIN (DELILAH)

Okay.

So.

Maybe I deserve my spot on the Too Stupid To Live Heroine List because I’m still not sure why I’m surprised I wound up in the situation I’m in now.

I threw myself in the thick of it like a dumbass, thinking I’m going to be all kick-ass Nancy Drew and solve a murder my stupid cop boyfriend couldn’t even handle.

Right.

More like I’m about to be the latest Redhaven case file.

That’s my first thought as I come to slowly.

My limbs and brain feel sluggish, and I think I smell—is that animal flesh?—manure, meat, blood.

Strong blood.

Fresh and potent, but it’s mixed with another smell, too.

A strange one, something like… hot metal?

My arms hurt like hell. I don’t even need to open my eyes to know I’m dangling from them, the full force of my weight pulling me down, making my shoulders burn.

Ugh. He injected me, didn’t he?

And what did Ulysses poison me with?

Ulysses.

It was him all along.

Right under my nose, but I couldn’t see it.

Like Lucas, I was hung up on the notion that whoever killed Celeste Graves also killed Emma Santos, and that couldn’t have been Ulysses when he’d have been about twelve or thirteen at the time of Celeste’s disappearance.

Maybe it’s a like father, like son situation.

I don’t know.

My head is spinning.

All I know is I need to figure out what the hell’s going on and get out of here ASAP.

I carefully pry one eye open, trying to assess my surroundings without giving myself away.

I don’t know how I avoid screaming bloody murder when I realize I’m surrounded by carcasses. Red meat and marbled white fat lines the walls surrounding me.

My eyes pinch shut again. I hold my breath until my heart calms, then slowly pry my eyes open again for a braver look.

Yep.

Pig carcasses.

I’m in some kind of shed with a dirt floor. Something that looks hastily constructed except for the sturdy wooden support beams with chains embedded in them, and hooks dangling from those chains—and I’m dangling from one of those hooks, I realize.

Whatever has my wrists tied, it’s caught on the hook. The rest are embedded in the pigs that were slaughtered and left in various stages of butchering for market.

All around the walls of the shed are wood and metal worktables cluttered with tools.

Not just things for meat processing, but what looks like machining and electrical tools, too.

I see him bent over a stool, working at something that shoots up bright sparks.

Culver Jacobin?

…I am so confused right now.

If Ulysses was the one stalking and threatening me, the one who killed Roger, then why am I tied up in a shed with weirdo hillbilly Culver Jacobin right now?

Culver straightens, studying his handiwork. That’s when I get a glimpse of what he’s been working on.

The bracelet.

Holy hell.

Its weight is missing from my wrist, and he’s etched another delicate X in it with the red-hot engraving pen in his hand.

The eighth X.

For me.

Cross my heart and hope to die.

Okay.

We can figure out the what’s what and who’s who later.

For now, I have to operate on the assumption that someone wants me dead, and I don’t want to die.

So I need to focus less on the who and more on the how I’m getting out of here.

When Culver stands, dusting off bits of metal powder from his overalls and turning toward me, I slam my eyes closed and pretend to be out again.

Not fast enough.

He lets out a long, hooting whistle and the most awkward laugh I’ve ever heard. “Soo-wee, the little piggy’s gone and woken herself up, huh?”

Fuck.

No point in faking now.

If I try to play dead, he’ll probably touch me, maybe slap me around a little, anything to get a reaction.

So I open my eyes, staring at him with raw hatred and disgust flaring inside me.

“It was you,” I bite off. “You killed Roger. And now you want me dead, too?”

Culver blinks at me like I just mouthed off in Russian—then guffaws, slapping his thigh. “Oh, nah, missus. I may be a man of many trades, but that ain’t my talent.” He grins wide, a nasty sneer full of blocky teeth. “I stick to pigs. It’s the boss who likes the ladies. Me, I just wipe up what’s left. You just sit tight now, lady. I been working up these pigs, but your turn’s coming real soon.”

Pigs?

What the hell is he talking about?

I just stare at him as he turns away from me with a satisfied little snicker.

That’s when I hear the crunch of loose earth underneath him. It looks like it’s been spread around, almost like mulch to absorb the blood from the slaughter.

But it’s not just dirt.

That’s where the manure smell is coming from.

My eyes focus on the little white chips spread around, like small things that weren’t quite fully digested.

I swallow a cactus lodged in my throat as I realize that’s bone.

Oh, God.

I read somewhere that hungry pigs will eat just about anything.

And more than once, rural murderers have used them to dispose of dead bodies. Once the pigs get ahold of them, there won’t be anything left but bone fragments.

The boss?

My entire body ices over with a fever of fear and horror sinking in.

Ulysses Arrendell is going to murder me for sport.

Then Culver will feed my body to the hogs, and leave nothing behind but that cursed bracelet, waiting for another girl to become a mark on Ulysses’ belt.

Lucas, I’m sorry.

All I can see are his sad, angry green eyes skimming over a case file. About all that’s left of me, if they ever find any evidence at all.

Lucas was right about everything.

I came looking for answers.

Trouble found me instead, and now I’ll never get to tell him that all I really wanted was for him to hold me one more time.


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