“We are born with our father's names. We are not responsible for their failures. We are responsible for what they made us believe in. That is our only obligation. And it is even then a choice which we may sometimes be wise to ignore.”
The Origins of a Maniacal Hero
IT WAS BACK in the day . . . Freak on a Leash and Nookie topped the rock charts and TRL was the biggest thing on television—at least as far as most of the youth of that time was concerned. If you didn’t have issues, then you didn’t know who Korn was. If you had issues, then you were fitting right in with the current generation, a generation where having a social stigma or a psychological problem made you unique and being individualistic was all the rave. Bi-po was the new spaz—and Ritalin was the best candy.
Unlike other fourteen-year-olds, Cameron didn’t strive to be unique, didn’t care about the latest rave, wanted little out of life and had few friends.
He tightened his half-gloved hand around the barbell.
“One more set,” Dwoane said gruffly, standing behind the weight bench, spotting. “You can do it, Big C!”
Although Dwoane was a senior, the Panthers’ tight end and had the physique that could rival a Big 12 college player, Cam’s build was even bigger. At fourteen years old and a height of 6’1, Cam weighed in at 304, bench pressed 310, squats 420.
Cam was big. He was strong.
He was a bona fide anomaly, whether he wanted or appreciate that fact or not.
Lower. Feel the burn . . . flowing . . .
“That’s smooth,” Dwoane said.
Exhale. Lift. Slow. Steady.
Dwoane’s name was pronounced Duh-waun but guys on the team liked to razz him. They’d call him Dwayne. And he’d lose it.
“I ain’t no white-ass hick, muthafuckers! I got genuine Texan black snake right here, baby!” in which he’d always grab his crotch. Of course, only other varsity players ever got to mess with Dwoane.
Cam had personally witnessed a JV player make the same joke and Dwoane made him eat grass until he screamed for mercy. The poor guy had tears running down his face before Dwoane finally got off him.
“Nine more just like that, baby!” Dwoane said.
This was Cam’s third and final set on the bench.
Two more. A third.
“This is the wall, boy! Hit it! Smash it! Show me that willpower!”
Cam’s teeth clenched. The high school’s weightlifting room was stifling hot, even with a half dozen fans set up inside the barn-like building. It was the best this country-hick high school could afford.
“C’mon! My granny can pump iron better than you and she’s ninety-two!”
Cam had heard the Panther’s coach, Coach Sammy Block, use that same zinger, so it didn’t make the fire burn any hotter, not that he needed more motivation. Cam wasn’t working out with aspirations of joining the football team. He wasn’t trying to bulk up to get girls.
Cam had one motivation; get strong and big enough to kill Tony, his old man. He had stopped calling him ‘Dad’ about two years ago, the night Tony had beat Mom unconscious. And as a result, Ajay had succumbed to a severe panic attack. Both Mom and Ajay were rushed by ambulance to the hospital.
“Two more to go, baby! Push!”
The flames of pain constricted around his arms and upper chest. Good flames. Great flames! No pain, no gain. No pain, no gain. More gain, and no more pain . . .
Dwoane was one of Cam’s few friends, which was fine. Cam didn’t want a bunch of friends. His six-foot frame and three hundred pounds proved useful in keeping people at a distance. Not many other fourteen-year-olds measured up. He was a freak-of-nature the school bully had teased, until Cam knocked three of his teeth loose, earning him the nickname The Tooth Reaper. Ironically, the moniker wasn’t given to him by a foe; it was given to him by Dwoane—who had spoken the sentiment in jest.
Breath ragged. “Let’s do this!”
“We gonna do this or not? Anytime now!”
Cam held the bar a half-inch above his ribcage.
“We’re gonna finish this shit!”
Cam grunted. He thrust the weights upward.
“That’s my man!” Dwoane did a dramatic twirl. “Alright. Alright. That’s good. That’s good. That’s real good. Let’s call it a day.”
Exhaling, Cam set the bar down.
Although he was considerably bigger than Tony, he couldn’t help but fear the bastard. He was sure he could beat Tony to death, and probably do so easily, but he couldn’t shake his nervousness and self-doubt.
Cam was no different than most kids, he supposed. Growing up, he saw his dad as a figure of authority, someone you respected, tried to obey best ya could and never, ever gave lip to. Cam simply couldn’t wrap his head around reversing their roles.
It was a mindset, Cam realized. He had to think of his dad as inferior. And think of himself as the one in control. The parent. It was the only way he could muster up the spine enough to take the fucker out. And the fucker really had to be taken out. Soon.
Because every night that went by without Cam doing the deed was another night Ajay had to take another beating.
Another part of Cam’s hesitation was because he didn’t know how he would kill his father and get away with it. Leave no evidence. No reason to suspect foul play. Religiously, his mother—and Tony if he wasn’t passed out drunk—would watch America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh and for the last several months Cam had paid special attention to all the murder cases, especially the evidence that led to the captures in the update portions of the program. Fingerprints were a big deal, and so was motive. There wasn’t much he could think of to do about motive.
After today, Cam knew how he would kill Tony.
Because today, in his eighth-grade health class, he had learned the answer to a question that had haunted his waking and sleeping thoughts.
The answer to the puzzle hid within a simple statistic: More than eighty percent of alcohol-related boating accidents resulted in death by drowning.
And fingerprints didn’t stick to water.
Day after tomorrow, Tony would go fishing.
He went every Saturday and Sunday, as long as the weather held out.
And sunny skies were forecasted for this weekend.
It was the same routine, every damn weekend. Tony would toss a bunch of rods and reels and a large tackle box into the back of the truck along with a case of beer. Then he’d hitch the green aluminum boat to the truck, tossing in a few extra tall boys of beer in the live well. “A real man can’t ever be too careful,” he’d frequently say before yelling for Cam and Ajay to get in the back.
Sometimes Ajay would try to bring a whole case of Hot Wheels with him, but Tony would say there wasn’t enough room for that kiddy shit.
Dwoane tossed a wet towel at Cam as they headed for the door. The cool moisture on his burning muscles was a welcome reprieve on his sweaty flesh.
“You maxed 335 today,” Dwoane said. “By tight end standards that places you only five away from the Excellence rank, that’s 90% max rank.”
Cam tossed the towel back at Dwoane. “Ninety-percent? I want one-hundred-fucking-percent.”
“I know. I know. You one crazy cracker. But you push yourself too damn much, too damn hard, and you gonna blow your muscles like a car blows a belt. Then it’s all gonna be for zilch.”
“Just meet me here tomorrow. Same time.”
“Nah. Take tomorrow and the weekend off. We’ll pick up on Monday.”
“I can’t wait that long. Tomorrow. It’s my last chance.”
Dwoane shook his head. “Look, I ain’t gonna hook you up with anymore ‘roids if you don’t cool your jets for a bit. This some serious shit, Big C. Hell, your face is already starting to look like you got stung by a nest of bees. People gotta know you doin’ the shit by now.”
Cam felt his temper flare. Face reddened. Teeth gritted. “Nobody knows shit.”
Dwoane moved to stand in front of the doorway, obstructing Cam’s exit. “None of this shit better blow back on my black ass, you got that?”
With a grimace, Cam nodded.
They pushed through the double doors and strode across the high school parking lot.
Dwoane flipped him off. “See ya Monday, Big C.”
Cam groaned. He shoved the key into lock on the driver’s side of his mother’s car, a run down Chevy Citation. That’s when he saw the note that was slipped between the glass on the window and the rubber molding.
You don’t have to pick me up. Had to leave work early so I got a ride home with Debbie. There was an incident. Ajay got suspended. Brought a knife to school.
Cam’s right hand tightened into a fist. “Fuck!” He punched the roof of the car. The metal buckled and creased.
Tony would punish Ajay for sure. Hell, he didn’t need much of a reason to whoop Ajay and did so most every night. Ajay’s panic attack two years ago set something off inside Tony, a special kind of hatred for his youngest son.
That’s when he started hurting Ajay.
Started with sending him to bed without supper and forcing him to take baths in iced water.
And progressed to putting out cigarettes on his head and making him sleep in the shed.
Tony was smart, never leaving evidence of his ‘punishments’. He also rarely touched Cam. Only Mom— when she tried to interfere—and Ajay, but mostly Ajay.
Tonight, Tony would surely make Ajay sleep in the shed; no pillow or blanket, lying on car oil stains in the wood floor, feeling the tickle of crawling cockroaches and listening to the scurrying of rats, while Cam would be left to sleep in his bedroom on a soft mattress with pillows and blankets, all comfy like.
Cam started the car, shifted to drive. He drove toward home and what surely would be a long night, for all of them.
It had been a long night, just as Cam had suspected it would be. On Friday, he took Dwoane’s advice and rested up. No lifting weights. He spent the day picturing Tony’s face; eyes wide open, eerily staring upward from beneath murky water.
Finally, the moment was here.
“A real man can’t ever be too cautious,” Tony said, chuckling at his own joke as he tossed the extra beers into the live-well. “You two dipshits get in the back. Let’s go!”
CAM STOOD ON THE EDGE OF Lake Raven, a remote pond nestled deep in the forest of Huntsville State Park. A hundred yards off shore empty cans bobbed around Tony’s green boat. He was striking matches, cussing the wind for blowing them out, while a cigarette wobbled between his thin lips.
From a Styrofoam cooler Cam grabbed a can of beer, cracked it open and guzzled.
Ajay sat crouched on the sandy bank and stared up at him incredulously. “Daddy gonna whoop you
for drinkin’ his beer.”
“Hush,” Cam said.
Ajay returned to his measly two Hot Wheels that he’d stowed away in his denim shorts. A red convertible and a pick-up truck with tiny plastic cargo lights molded on the top, both filthy from the wet sand.
Blood raced through Cam’s veins. Bullets of sweat bubbled on his forehead. A flash of heat swept over his body. With balled fists, he closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing, slow and controlled.
Dwoane had taught him this technique after Cam had complained about the side effects of the damn steroids. The drug drove his temper to borderline uncontrollable levels. Despite the side effects, the desperation to increase his bulk and do it quickly, kept Cam the tight end’s most loyal customer and workout buddy.
Ajay lay on his stomach by Cam’s feet. He pushed the toy car and truck through some dried pine needles further from the bank, carving a road through the packed needles. “It’s getting dark.” He glanced up at Cam. “You think we might go home soon? I’m bored. I wish I’d brought my tractor, but I couldn’t fit it in my pocket.”
Dried blood covered the crack on Ajay’s bottom lip. The purple on the apple of his cheek had darkened but, at least the swelling had gone down. Last night’s ‘punishment’ had left obvious marks. Tony was getting careless.
“Goddamn wind!” Tony bellowed. “That sonuvabitch on the Weather Channel don’t know shit!” Tony chucked the entire box of matches into the pond.
Cam watched the box sink like a casket, sinking to its watery grave. He crouched beside Ajay. “What were you thinking, bringing a knife to school?”
Absently, Ajay shrugged.
Cam lifted Ajay’s shirt. Between his shoulder blades where Tony had burned him with a cigarette, a blister oozed puss. “If you stop screwing up, maybe Tony would get after me one of these nights instead of you.”
Ajay glided the car over a rock while making vrroom-vrroom sounds. “I wish I had a real car. I wish we could drive somewhere. Anywhere but here.”
“Shithead,” Tony bellowed from the middle of the lake. “Beer!”
“Want me to go this time?” Ajay asked. “I can swim real good now.”
Cam rubbed the black hair on top of Ajay’s head. “You take enough shit from him already. I got this.”
“Now!” Tony’s gruff voice echoed off the dense pines of the secluded campground.
Cam pulled Ajay’s shirt down. Gently, he gripped his brother under the arms and turned him until his back was toward the lake. “See that big stump way over there?” He thumbed, gesturing with a tilt of his head.
“Yeah. I see it.”
“Go make a racetrack around it, okay?”
“Sure. That sounds kinda fun.” Ajay jumped to his feet and headed for the stump several yards away.
Cam pulled his sweat-drenched shirt over his head, folded it neatly and set it on a log. He looked down at his muscle-bound torso and the bulges in his biceps. Would it all pay off?
Ajay glanced over his shoulder. “What you gonna do?”
Cam felt one corner of his mouth lift into a cruel grin. “Bring Tony his last beer.”
19 years later
THE SOLITUDE OF the Texas campground hadn’t dimmed Maggie’s anxiety like she’d hoped, but the five beers sure as hell did. She might even be drunk enough to pee in one of the nasty outhouses.
She chugged her beer and set the can between the ribs running along the bottom of the canoe. Grabbing another from the cooler, she shifted her weight, rocking the boat. Empty cans rolled and clattered. Water splashed over the gunnel.
Tilly sat across from Maggie reading a paperback. She set her book down and tilted her oversized sun hat until it cast a shadow over her pale legs. “I think you’ve had enough.”
Maggie cracked the can open and took a sip. “I’m just getting started.” She glanced over her shoulder at the bow of the canoe where she’d stowed her gun. The .38 snub-nosed revolver made for a lightweight and easily concealable weapon, or at least that was what her older brother had said the day he taught her how to use it.
She braced her palms and leaned backward, stretching her body, hoping her emerald bikini hid little from the last of the day’s sunshine.
Tilly lifted her chin, gesturing toward the embankment. “I’ve seen him somewhere but I can’t place him.”
A tall man stood on shore. He wore black hiking boots and faded jeans. A navy-blue T-shirt stretched smooth over a well-muscled chest.
Maggie turned to get a better view. The bow dipped. Water seeped into the canoe. “You know him?”
Tilly shrugged. “Maybe I’ve seen him at Chase Industries.”
Maggie snickered. “He doesn’t strike me as the computer-geek type.”
When Maggie planned this getaway, staying drunk was the only task on the itinerary. Not getting laid. The five beers she had drank must’ve warped her already demented mind. She needed a distraction and she needed to feel good. And he looked like he could make her feel great.
Tilly covered her mouth and gasped. “That’s no rifle he’s holding.”
Maggie’s head spun. She gripped the seat, trying to steady herself but lost her balance. Her body swayed. The trees surrounding the lake blurred in a drunken haze.
The canoe tilted and Maggie’s grip slipped. Head first, she toppled into the lake.
Darkness surrounded her. She flailed and kicked but where was the surface? Had she swam up or down?
Her lungs tightened, begging for air. The pounding of her heart rang in her ears. She was going to die.
Closing her eyes, she inhaled.
WARM LIPS PRESSED against Maggie’s mouth. She opened her eyes to find a very large man kneeling beside her. Water dripped from his short black hair and bare chest. His jeans were soaked. A gold ring dangled from a thick chain circling his neck.
He grunted. “Thought you needed CPR. But all you need is a strong cup of coffee.”
A pungent flavor of spoiled fish lingered on her tongue. Bile rose in her throat. Gagging and coughing, she twisted and vomited. A string of saliva trailed from her bottom lip. With the back of her hand, she wiped her mouth.
Tilly stood behind him, her drenched blouse plastered to her petite frame. “Is she gonna be okay?”
The man glowered down at Maggie. “Anybody ever tell you that boating and drinking is a good way to get yourself killed?”
Maggie propped herself on her forearms and glanced across the water. The canoe floated upside down, surrounded by cans and flotation cushions. Fog clouded her vision and her head spun. She palmed her forehead. “One beer too many.” She hesitated, glancing across the water again. Panicked, she rolled to the side and patted the ground, scouring the pine needles and dried leaves. “Where’s my gun?”
The man scooped her into his arms, one arm under her legs and the other under back. A strong scent of bourbon wafted from his olive skin.
“Probably at the bottom of the lake,” he said.
An enormous stranger had her cradled in his arms like they were longtime lovers. She should be freaking out or at the least, mildly alarmed. But when his lips curled into a crooked smile, a smile any sane girl would find terrifying, she found him only mildly disturbing, and at the same time, sexy as hell. But then again, dangerous men had always been her weakness.
With Maggie still in his arms, he turned from the water’s edge and traipsed along a worn path through the woods.
“We appreciate your help.” Tilly followed closely. “But I can take it from here.”
The man didn’t acknowledge Tilly. He just kept walking. After a few hundred feet or so they came to an empty campsite.
He set Maggie down at a picnic table and glanced at Tilly. “Take her to the hospital. Just to be sure.” He turned back to Maggie and opened his mouth as if to say something.
Black, empty, doll-like eyes drilled into her. A smirk formed on his unshaven face. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, before turning and disappearing the way they’d come.
Sighing, Tilly knelt before Maggie and brushed a damp strand from Maggie’s cheek. “You scared the crap out of me. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Squinting, Maggie watched the large man disappear into the woods. “Is he coming back?”
“About that. Let’s put some distance between us and him and if you’re up to it, we’ll head back to the cabin.”
“You go,” Maggie said. “I’ll catch up to you.” She stood and staggered toward the greenery where the mysterious stranger had disappeared.
Tilly gently grasped both Maggie’s arms and forced her to sit back down. “No way. I’m not gonna let you do it.”
“Are you insane? Tell me you’re not thinking of bedding that man.”
Maggie laughed. “No. I plan on fucking him.” Again, she stood but Tilly pushed her back down.
“You’ve done some stupid stuff but this is over-the-top . . . even for you.”
Maggie scowled. “What’s your problem?”
“My problem? I’ll tell you what my problem is.” Tilly’s voice pitched and Maggie resisted rolling her eyes. Tilly continued. “That man is not to be trusted. How about a little common sense? He looked as if he was ready to kill somebody.”
Maggie sighed. “I think you’re overreacting just a bit.”
“And as usual you’re under-reacting. The guy’s huge, like Guinness Book huge and . . . there’s something else.”
“Why all the drama? I thought you said you knew him.”
“I said he looked familiar,” Tilly said. “Big difference. I could’ve seen him at the grocery store or in a restaurant or on America’s Most Wanted.”
Maggie pressed her lips together in a tight smile. “Well, he’s probably long gone by now anyway.”
Tilly’s hands went to her hips. “Before the canoe capsized I saw him—”
The man strode from woods. When he looked at Maggie, she almost detected a smile. But even without a smile, he was hot as hell. His olive skin, sculpted jawline and six o’clock shadow gave him a rugged, bad boy look.
Maggie’s breath caught in her throat as she gawked at the tight T-shirt covering his muscled chest. Her gaze slid to his hands. Big hands. Long fingers. He held hiking boots and a Glock—not her revolver.
Maggie sighed in disappointment.
He inclined his head at Tilly. “Get her to a hospital.”
Maggie watched him walk toward the road, a wide dirt path that connected all the campsites. “Hey!”
He stopped walking but never turned, keeping his back to her.
Shaking his head, he continued walking.
Strange. Most men didn’t shy away from her. Even the happily married guys would at least engage in some harmless flirting and small talk.
Maggie knew she was an attractive woman. But her beauty did not come easily. She worked at it, staying in shape, remaining on a strict low-calorie and low-fat diet. She rarely left the house without makeup and her hair done. The only time she put her hair in a ponytail was when she went running.
Beyond her looks, Maggie knew what men liked. She said the right things and did the right things. She was a lady on the street and a slut in the bedroom.
Okay, maybe she was more slut on the street than she’d like to admit . . . sometimes. But her seductive sultry ways were subtle, which made her not only approachable but alluring.
But this guy wouldn’t so much as even give her his name. He didn’t seem to notice Maggie’s feminine efforts. Did he not find her attractive? Sexy?
Maybe he was gay.
At the end of the site a lanky man ran toward her mammoth of a rescuer. His blond hair stretched halfway down his back. “Cam!”
“Fuck!” Her rescuer ran back to Maggie and placed the gun in her palm, grip first. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We never met.”
CAM WANTED TO DIE. Seemed only fitting to take his own life at the same place he took his father’s life. From that moment seventeen years ago, until now, he’d struggled too long and hard with his rage, a constant battle of primal need, self-doubt and conscience.
Had he known back then what he knew now, the effect killing his own father would have on his psyche, he wished he could say he’d have done it all differently. But that would be a lie. Cam would not hesitate to kill his father again, even if he knew it would lead to this moment of sheer exhaustion.
Cam was tired. So damn tired.
He had planned it all out. Tell Jags, his stepbrother, that he was going camping and pray Jags’ psychic gifts didn’t reveal any visions, foreseeing Cam’s plan to shoot himself in the head. Odds were good Jags would stay clear, since Jags learned to stay out of Cam’s head a long time ago. It seemed forever ago that the little shit had trespassed in Cam’s head, which had sent Jags’ deep into a coma.
Ever since then, Jags had learned to tread lightly with regards to Cam and his dark and twisted mind. So Cam could only hope that Jags would not ‘see’ into his immediate future, a future with a quick end.
The plan worked . . . sort of.
Jags never ‘saw’ Cam’s plans of a quick end, but he did figure out he was going camping, thanks to an impromptu drop-in visit. So Cam had to let his brother come with him. For the weekend, they left the care of Gramps to their father Doug and took off to Huntsville State Park for some fishing and drinking. And drinking and fishing.
Technically, Doug was Cam’s stepfather, but soon after he married Cam and Ajay’s mother, Cam came to love him as a father, much more than he ever loved Tony.
When Jags and Cam had arrived to the state park yesterday, Jags had quickly made friends with some guys selling live bait out of the back of their pickup. Not surprising since Jags made friends everywhere he went. There was just something magnetic about him that attracted people of all walks of life.
Cam was the exact opposite. He disliked most walks of life and the feeling was typically mutual.
When Jags’ had left about an hour ago to party with his new friends on their houseboat, Cam knew this might be his only chance. He grabbed his gun from his truck and strode for the lake.
As he stood on the water’s edge, teetering on the edge of pulling the trigger, a sickening wave of nausea overcame him.
And he realized he didn’t want to die.
But he didn’t want to go on living either.
So what could he do?
Can’t go forward.
Can’t go back.
He was fucked.
Cam had no friends and no job, other than taking care of his aging grandfather. He was filled with a sense of dread and doom, a constant pressing darkness that would not let up . . . ever.
He hated everything.
But his family.
Ajay, Doug, Gramps and Jags. They were his circle, his only circle.
As Cam had stood on that water’s edge, a gun in his hand, struggling with the right and wrong of . . . everything, he had spotted a canoe about a hundred feet out into the water. Two women, a striking redhead and a cutesy blond, seemed to be relaxing while enjoying a few beers.
He had debated cursing them out for drinking and boating, but before he could utter a word, the canoe tipped and both women tumbled into the water.
Now, here he stood with Jags heading straight for him. How the hell would Cam explain . . . everything; the wet clothes, the strange women? At least he had dumped the gun on the redhead. Not sure how he’d talked his way out of bringing a Glock for a walk to the lake.
Cam strode past the women to head off his stepbrother and drag him back to the cabin they’d rented. Otherwise, Jags would introduce himself, shake their hand and read their future. Attempting to fill in the gaps of his vision, he’d ask a shitload of questions, questions that may lead to Jags figuring out Cam’s plans, which would turn this one long ass life into one hell of a long night.
“I was coming to—” Jags laughed, eyeing Cam’s soaked clothing. “You could’ve borrowed my suit.” He peered around Cam. “Who are your friends?”
“Don’t know ‘em.” Cam grasped Jags’ elbow and tugged him in the opposite direction. “Let’s go.”
“Tilly!” Jags twisted out of Cam’s grasp, danced around him and sprinted toward the blonde. When he reached her, scooped and twirled her.
She let out a clipped laugh. “Hello, Jags.”
“So good to see you.” He lowered her to her feet. “Where’s your husband?”
“Nate’s not here. I’m here with Maggie.”
Jags turned toward the sexy redhead still sitting at the picnic table. With a shit-eating grin, he strode toward her. “What’s a sweet thing like you doing with a gun? Cam has the same model. Gen4?”
Redhead, AKA Maggie, looked at Cam and he shook his head.
“Where's my manners?” Jags cupped her hand in both of his. “Nice to meet you.”
Cam clasped his hands behind his head and broke into a brisk pace. The little shit was, no doubt, reading her future. Fuck!
After only a few seconds, Jags stumbled. He released hold of Maggie’s hand. His arms swiped through the air as if blind. He tripped and fell into the table. Regaining his balance, he felt his way along the worn wood and sat beside Maggie.
With his head back and his fists balled by his side, he released a guttural scream.
Maggie hugged herself and stepped away from the table. “What’s wrong with him?”
Cam rushed to Jags’ side. He gripped his upper arms and gently shook him. “Why do you do this to yourself?”
Jags popped to his feet and brushed past Cam. With careful steps, as if approaching a skittish animal, he neared Maggie and cupped her chin. “So. Much. Pain.”
A twinge of possessiveness sparked Cam’s temper. His face flushed. His hands trembled. A flash of heat swept through his body. Sweat dripped down his forehead. Cam shifted his weight and shook his head. She was just some random girl. What the fuck!
“He won’t give you the end that you seek,” Jags said.
She shuddered. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“My brother has been alone too long. You don’t know how happy I am to meet you.”
Tilly tapped Jags on the shoulder. “He’s your brother?”
Keeping his eyes on Maggie, Jags said, “Yes.”
“I must have seen him at Chase then visiting you. I thought I recognized him.” Tilly grimaced. “Didn’t you have a vision of what your brother just tried to do?”
“I rarely subject myself to Cam’s chi. Too painful.”
Cam rolled his eyes. And there it was. The freaky voodoo crap.
Jags glanced to each of them. “You’re all soaked and I don’t think it’s because you went swimming, since Cam is dressed and so is Tilly. I’m guessing there’s an intriguing story to tell.” Jags turned toward Tilly, a mischievous smile on his face. “So, the question is what did my brother just try to do?”
Cam glared at her. “Don’t.”
“Hold it,” Maggie said. “Am I missing something?”
“He tried to kill himself.” Tilly pointed to the Glock in Maggie’s grip. “With that gun.”
Jags’ head whipped around. The moment his eyes met with Cam’s, the color of Jags’ irises shifted to silver. His brows lowered and the goofy smile on his face turned down. “Bastard!” He stormed toward Cam, finger wagging like a father scolding a toddler. “I’m not going to let you kill yourself, and I’m prepared to haunt you night and day to stop you.”
“Really?” Cam said.
Jags gave Cam a dismissive wave, took the gun from Maggie and bowed. “Ladies. I bid you farewell.”
Yup. One hell of a long night.
CAM WHIPPED THE SCREEN door open and stormed into the cabin. Planting his palms on the far wall, he hung his head between his arms.
He listened to Jags’ work boots thump on the wood-planked floors. With the thud of each step, Cam’s rage soared and the familiar symptoms surfaced. His hands shook. Beads of sweat speckled his neck and forehead. A white light pierced his vision. A monster migraine slammed behind his eyes.
Jags’ footsteps stopped.
“No psycho-babble bullshit,” Cam said. “Not tonight.”
Cam glanced over his shoulder to find Jags standing in the center of the room. No smile. No scowl. Jags without a hint of his usual animation and goofiness, traits that Cam found comical and sometimes maddening. Jags stepped forward. His leg whipped out and swiped Cam’s feet from beneath him.
He landed on his ass. “What the hell!”
With a booted foot, Jags stomped onto his chest.
The air whooshed from Cam’s lungs. He stared in disbelief. They’d fought many times, but this was different. Their fights usually consisted of punches and kicks. Nobody was ever hurt and by the end they both laughed. And not once, had Jags used his martial arts training against him.
Cam grunted as he tried to catch his breath. “I thought you hated violence.”
“Of the few times I’ve been forced into violence, most were because of you.” He removed his boot from Cam’s chest. “Sometimes I really hate you.”
Cam climbed to his feet. He slammed Jags against the wall and gripped him around the neck. Saliva sprayed from his clenched teeth. “Don’t fuck with me.”
A steeled fist rammed into Cam’s gut.
Cam stumbled backwards. “Shit. I’d hate to think—” He clutched his stomach, gasping. When Jags walked toward him, Cam held up his hands, palms out. “—how’d you’d be if you loved violence.”
Jags backed Cam against the wall. “Start talking.”
Talk. Not Cam’s favorite pastime. He slugged Jags across the jaw, a move he could have easily blocked but for some reason chose not to.
Stepping backwards, Jags glided a finger over his cut lip. He slid a pack of gum from his pants’ pocket and leaned his back against the parallel wall. “I’m listening.”
Cam bent at the waist and braced his hands on his thighs. “Tony didn’t drown. I held the fucker’s head under the water until I was sure he was dead. And I’d do it again.”
If Jags was surprised as this revelation, he didn’t show it. “You probably saved Ajay’s life.”
“For too long, I didn’t protect my little brother from that bastard. How pathetic is that?”
“Pathetic is not a word I would ever use to describe you.”
The silver in Jags’ eyes shimmered, which meant more voodoo freaky shit was coming. Jags’ bore into Cam. The last time Jags attempted to ‘see’ him, Jags’ fell into a coma. Cam’s stepbrother was extremely sensitive to—what Jags called—the dark side of a person’s psyche.
Determined to keep Jags out of his psyche, aura, chi, whatever-the-fuck Jags called it, Cam looked at the ceiling. “Last week I got rear-ended in the Expedition. Turns out it was some old geezer. Couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds.” Cam covered his mouth with his fist. “I knocked on his window but before I could say a word, the old man burst into tears.”
Jags cocked his head, a clear expression of boredom. “Get to the part where you decide death is the only option.”
“He pissed himself!”
“Well, you’re huge. I probably would’ve pissed myself too if I didn’t know you better, and your ‘fuck off’ expression doesn’t help either. I know you’re out of practice, but try a smile every once in a while.”
Cam pushed off the wall and paced. “The same demon that made Tony hurt Ajay is in me. I’ve felt it all my thirty-one years. I’ve held it back.” Cam faced Jags. “I’m tired of fighting it. And if I stop fighting it, I’ll end up hurting somebody, somebody who doesn’t deserve it, somebody like that old geezer who fender-bendered the Expedition. Somebody like Ajay, an innocent who ends up broken by the depraved.” He resumed pacing. “Gramps needs me and I’d hate to leave him, but I won’t become Tony. I’d rather blow my own fuckin’ head off before I let that happen.” Cam leaned against the wall, propped a foot behind and crossed his arms over his chest.
“We may not be blood,” Jags said. “But you are my brother and I know you would never hurt anyone. I don’t need my visions to tell me that.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
Jags cleared his throat. “Adrian cheated on Ajay. I never read her aura, I just sensed she was a conniving little witch and I was right. Some people’s auras are so wicked, I don’t need to be touching them to see the black of their soul.”
“You know that kind of talk freaks me out.”
“Right now, I don’t give a shit. I was right about the waitress at Roxy’s that had a crush on you. I steered her clear. I was right about—”
“Get to the point!”
“I see people for what they are. I’ve never been wrong. And you—” He pointed. “—my friend, are not evil.”
“If you see—” Cam made air quotes. “—people so well, how come you nearly fainted when I told you your girlfriend asked me to fuck her in the backseat of your truck?”
Jags dropped his gaze to the floor. He whispered, “Hitting below the belt, buddy.”
“I’d call her a cunt, but she lacks the depth and warmth.”
Jags looked up and narrowed eyes at him. “We’re getting off topic. My point is that if you were a monster, like Tony, I would have sensed it. You think I could be around you, if your soul was colored with the same kind of evil that painted Tony’s?”
Cam tapped the back of his head against the wall. “You just don’t get it.”
“What I get is that you need a solid fucking.”
Cam groaned. “We’re not goin’ there.”
Some years back, Cam had walked in on his girlfriend fucking a bald-headed punk and he beat the guy until the police pulled him off. The fucker lay in the hospital for a week. Worth every one of the hundred and seventy-six days he served in Huntsville State Prison but not an experience he cared to repeat.
From that moment on, to keep others safe, Cam had vowed a life of celibacy and solitude.
Jags said, “Did you know that societies where premarital sex is discouraged have more crime and incidents of violence?”
Clasping his hands behind his head, Cam traipsed back and forth, his boots thudding on the floor. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Did it ever occur to you that your aggression worsened when you decided to keep your pecker to yourself? Need more reasons to keep your head on your shoulders?” Jags counted on his fingers. “I’ll give you a few. Gramps. Dad. Ajay. And yours truly.” In front of his mouth, Jags steepled his fingers. “I’ll admit that you have a great pain hiding in your psyche.”
“Enough with the psycho-babble bullshit! I killed my own father and don’t have an ounce of regret.”
Jags hung his head and snickered. “If you had no regret, we wouldn’t be here right now.” He pierced Cam with that familiar all-knowing, cocky look. “Give me a year. If you’re still convinced you’re a menace, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Cam gave him a sidelong look. “You expect me to believe that load of horseshit?”
“The details of the plan.” Jags counted on his fingers. “First, you’re going to get laid, as soon as possible. Second, you’re gonna get off your ass and make the repairs needed on the old Copper Creek place and turn it into the best restaurant this side of Houston. You need a life other than taking care of Gramps.”
“I won’t leave him alone.”
“Lest I remind you that less than an hour ago you were prepared to shoot your brains out, thus leaving him very alone.”
Cam shook his head. “I cannot hammer nails into a wall, stock glassware and plan a dinner menu if I’m constantly worried about Gramps.”
“Gramps won’t be alone.” Looking at his counting fingers, Jags said, “Leave that to me.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
With three large and graceful strides, Jags crossed the room and set his hand on Cam’s shoulder. Heat warmed the muscles in Cam’s neck and arms. His legs weakened. An invigorating chill ran through him, like taking a deep breath after sucking on a peppermint; except his whole body felt electrified, not just his mouth.
Cam collapsed onto his ass. “How the hell do you do that?”
Jags crouched and bounced on his haunches. “It might have something to do with all the pussy I get. It doesn’t leave room for aggression, only peace, a peace I am more than happy to transfer to you.” He offered his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
The deep blue returned to Jags’ eyes. His stepbrother was back to himself, minus the freaky shit. Cam grimaced. “I don’t know how to live.”
“I’m going to teach you.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Please.” Jags nodded at his own outstretched hand.
Jags didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He showcased them in neon flashing lights. His unearthly compassion might as well have been stamped on his forehead. He wasn’t an open book; more like a 3D IMAX blockbuster.
Jags waggled his fingers, urging Cam to accept his hand. His eyes glimmered with moisture. “One year.”
Cam laced his fingers behind his neck. “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Hearing you nearly blew your head off, blew a cannon through the center of my chest. It was kind of painful. Now stitch me up. Accept my hand and give me one fucking year.” Tilting his head, he flashed a wide smile, teeth clenched, like a child forced to smile for school pictures.
With a grimace and a nod, Cam shook Jags’ hand and clapped him on the shoulder. “Brothers.”
Jags curled his fingers around Cam’s forearm. “Always.”