Brent Zindell slapped his badge on the card reader then yanked open the door to the Child Protective Services building in downtown Phoenix.
No attempt had been made to soften the institutional décor. The heels of those forcibly ejected laid tracks on the dull linoleum. The white paint had yellowed under the bald eye of the fluorescent lights. Steel and fabric chairs lined the walls like crooked teeth. The whole building stank of despair, addiction, and the human soul rotting like sweet fruit.
Setting his briefcase on the belt, Brent walked through the metal detector. He gritted his teeth, waited for the alarm to ring. It never had. But one day…
“Good morning, Mr. Zindell. It’s nice to see you’ve made it into work safely.” The petite guard smiled as she handed him the battered briefcase. Theresa’s spiked brown hair gave her an extra inch, bringing her to five foot three.
Three inches shorter than him. Women were petite; men were short. No one made fun of his height now. His fingers dug into the worn leather. Perching it on the corner of the X-ray machine, Brent flicked the latches and lifted the lid. Case notes caught the gray lining, tearing it a little more.
Theresa caught one manilla file before it dropped to the floor and vomited its contents. “I think you need a bigger briefcase.”
“I’d need a raise for that.” The joke was an oldie but a goodie. The state had frozen everyone’s pay for the last couple of years. With more work and less money coming in, his coworkers all shared the same gripe. Why should he update his material? Especially when it proved he lacked imagination. Mentally ticking off one item on his to-do list, he removed the placard with his CPS identification. He held out his hand for the file. Grasping it loosely, he tossed it on top of the others. Papers fanned out of the side. Disorganized was another trait he appeared to possess. “Thank you.”
The male guard hunched over his smartphone. “They’ve broken up the riots, but the governor is having a press conference at eleven. I think he means to activate the National Guard.”
Leaning on the cover of his briefcase, Brent snapped the latches in place. “What riots?”
“Didn’t you take the freeway here?” Castillo, the male guard, glanced up from his cell. Sweat beaded his tan forehead.
“He takes the light rail.” Theresa roosted her oversized posterior on the nearby stool. Instead of staring at the screen of the X-ray machine, she checked her phone. “Everyone knows that. Otherwise, he would have come up through the garage, not in from the street.”
“Maybe I just like you guys better.” The glib remark slid off Brent’s tongue before he could trap it with his teeth. He’d worked hard to build his innocuous reputation, he couldn’t ruin it now.
“What’s not to like?” Theresa didn’t even glance up from her game. Her thumbs flew over her screen as she matched rows of crystals.
Brent swallowed despite his dry mouth. Stick to the plan. Don’t do anything to give you away. Appear normal. “What riots?”
“I-17, the 101 and the 202. People got so fed up with the morning commute that they started beating each other up.” Grinning, Castillo turned the phone in his sausage fingers so the screen faced Brent. “Look, they’re replaying it.”
Miniature people formed rivulets of color through the gridlocked cars. A portion of the hoard rocked a white van. After a minute, it overbalanced and tipped onto its side. The mob surged again and the vehicle stopped on its roof.
“What idiots.” Brent wouldn’t have been so stupid. But then his crimes were much more serious.
Castillo arched a black caterpillar eyebrow. He plunked his boots on the floor then straightened to his full five-ten. Muscle played under his uniform, a leftover of his four years in the Marines. “They fixed the problem.”
Spittle punctuated his words.
Anger surged through Brent’s blood, heating his skin from the inside out. Never again would he be bullied. Never. The need for revenge hit his back molars. But the guard was too close to him. And cameras recorded this exchange. He sipped cold air into his lungs and leashed his rage.
He hadn’t been caught in the last three years.
He wouldn’t be caught now.
“The mob was videotaped.” Brent nodded toward the screen. “Even now, the crime lab will be analyzing the footage and isolating the faces. People will be identified and have to pay for the damage.”
The man’s face remained immobile.
Brent decided to deflect attention by pressing Castillo’s hot button. “You know how tight-fisted the insurance companies are.”
“Bastards.” The guard’s lip curled back in a sneer. “My back still hurts, and they’ve practically accused me of lying about it when their client was drunk and admitted fault in the car accident.”
Gotcha! Nodding sympathetically, Brent tapped his briefcase against his leg. “It’s greed. Pure and simple.”
Theresa stared up at the ceiling. “Why did you have to go and mention the insurance companies? You can leave when he starts ranting, but I have to work with him for another seven hours.”
“Sorry.” Brent held up his hands in surrender then sidled toward the bank of elevators. “I’ll be making coffee. Buzz me if you guys need a refill.”
Castillo turned back to his cell. “Your coffee sucks.”
Damp air roiled through the room, rattling the brass on the velvet ropes. The blare of car horns echoed around the two-story receiving hall. The century-old Catholic church up the street tested their air raid siren.
His coworkers would arrive soon, and he had something he needed to do first.
“I only drink organic tea.” Theresa slid her cell onto her station and stretched. “But I might try your coffee.”
With a wave, he hustled to the elevators. The doors opened as soon as he stabbed the call button.
Theresa’s greeting echoed down the hallway.
Brent slunk inside and leaned on the fourth floor button. Heels tapped the linoleum, growing closer. The doors eased closed, then the elevator bucked. He sagged against the chipped laminate walls. The steel handle banding the stifling box bit into his back. There was a reason he had a routine, why he stuck to it. He’d broken his rules twice today.
One slip could ruin his life. A second was bound to send him to death row.
He had to be more careful. His wife and daughter needed him to protect them. All the children in all the cases he oversaw needed him to watch out for them.
God knew the system didn’t.
The elevator coasted to a stop.
He was halfway across when the doors began to part. Clamping on the edge, he wrestled them open enough to squeeze through. He swatted the bank of switches next to the door. Light flooded the work areas.
Two of his staff members had already checked out. One had quit to teach school; the other had hung herself with a garden hose in her backyard.
They didn’t have his means to cope with the dregs of humanity.
Or the frustration of watching broken homes and the system grind innocent children into dust.
Ignoring the six-by-six cells of human productivity, he strode to his door and tugged the keys out of his pocket. He stabbed the lock twice before ramming the key home. A quick turn and the door opened. Stepping inside, he inhaled deeply.
Above the endless forms, the hand sanitizer, and the government stench, he caught the faintest hint of justice. He tossed his keys on the stack of closed case files. Jingling, they slid off and landed with a thump on the mounds of open files waiting for review. His chair squeaked as he sank onto it. The fake leather blew puffs of air when his butt collided with the rigid support underneath. He dropped his briefcase on the industrial slate carpet and reached for the thin pen drawer.
A whiff of brake oil teased his senses.
His heart thudded in his chest. Adrenalin pumped through his body. He closed his eyes then reached blindly into the drawer. Beyond the loose receipts, the scattered paper clips, and assorted pens, he brushed the rubberband holding the breath mint tin closed. Organic stamped the half-inch band, yet it was the viscous substance slicking his fingers that revealed its best use.
Brent caressed the rubber in long strokes, remembering. Always remembering.
He’d prowled across the darkened lawn. Dove under the McGuire’s car. His hand had shook as he’d wrapped the rubberband around the brake line. The twist of the wrench as he’d loosened it. Just enough.
The wait had been agony.
He exhaled a ragged breath.
Beaver Creek High had an away game. Billy McGuire was playing. The asshole father and mousey mother had left to watch. They’d returned as incomplete corpses in body bags. A freak accident, the police said. Vibration must have loosened the brake line, the mechanics claimed. The car had sped recklessly down the snaking road descending to Bumblebee. The rubberband had ensured there’d be no scratch marks on the metal.
And he’d stripped Billy McGuire of his high priced legal counsel, sealing his conviction in the rape of Cheyenne Zindell, and locking him in a cage for the rest of his youth.
Brent had touched the untouchable. He had given his daughter justice.
Once he’d discovered the power of death, he bestowed it upon others.
Now, three years later, Billy whored himself for survival; others just decomposed in marked graves. And the Justice Killer was a legend.
The television had only reported half his crimes.
The cops were marginally better informed.
He didn’t keep trophies. He wasn’t even present at ten of his sixteen kills. He hadn’t needed to be. Scum made it easy to press their faces into the mud until they stopped breathing.
But the rubberband was different.
It was his first.
After one last stroke, he wedged the tin of mints into the corner then shut the drawer. He had a schedule to keep. The mind-numbing monotony of his life ensured he always had an alibi. His wife and daughter would swear to where he was on any day.
Ripping off the calendar page, he scanned his notes. Documents due in court. Meeting times. Distribute case load of absent workers. And a band of color under the number. Today was green. Remarks to the canteen staff about lunch. A brief chat with two caseworkers. At home, he’d play video games with his daughter. Later, he’d make love to his wife.
Everything was planned.
Yet, there wasn’t an inkling of his other life. Unlike other serial killers, he wouldn’t be caught. He wasn’t ramping up, wasn’t sexually excited by the kill, wasn’t addicted to it so he needed to murder more frequently and got sloppy. No, he dispensed justice to those who couldn’t get it through the system.
He served the people.
Just like he did during his day job.
Opening his briefcase, he slotted the files in the marked envelopes to be sent to the appropriate judges, guardians ad litem, and the responsible social workers. He ticked off more items on his list as soft pings ricochetted like popcorn. Other workers filled the building.
Each chime caused his eye to twitch. Unrest prowled through him. He checked the clock. Quarter ’til nine. He had time to see if any child needed his brand of justice.
But first coffee needed to be brewed, he hurried two doors down to the break room. No one ever saw him without a cup of coffee in his hand in the morning. Blowing off the steam writhing above his mug a couple minutes later, he scooped up an armful of case files from the dead woman’s desk. Willy nilly, he scanned the names. Ones he didn’t recognize, he dealt like a deck of cards to his associates.
Alas, he recognized so many more.
He had to help them.
Three files in hand, he entered the last cubicle. Magazine advertisements of exotic locales and bouquets of flowers were taped to the flat walls. Magnets fixed a montage of family photos to the metal upper cabinets. Fake pink tulips overflowed a painted tin can vase.
Brent zeroed in on the open file next to the keyboard. Bruises grew like fungus from the child’s face. Swollen flesh masked her eyes. His gaze skimmed the page. Abigail Weathersby. Nine going on ninety. Four calls of unsubstantiated abuse.
The crimes were substantiated now.
Abigail was in the Pediatric ICU. X-rays revealed breaks in her limbs that had healed. According to the doctors, the beatings had started soon after her birth.
A metallic taste exploded in the back of his mouth. He would free the little girl. He reached for the page, looking for the home address.
Fabric whispered behind him. A cloud of patchouli followed.
Lin Sue Padilla wanted her desk back. Brent passed over the file to pick up a frame of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The foam daisies along the border were soft under his fingers. The pink tank top mirrored the color in the Asian/Latina girl’s cheeks. Matching braces marched across her teeth. Straight black hair cascaded over her shoulder. “Your granddaughter has grown up so fast. She’s what? Twelve now?”
“Yes, and she’s taller than me, too.” Beaming, Mrs. Padilla glided down the aisle between cubicles. Two black and red chopsticks stuck out of the bun of white hair at her nape. Just a shade under five foot, her clients underestimated her to their detriment.
If Abigail Weathersby had been assigned to Mrs. Padilla, she wouldn’t be in a hospital now.
“That was taken on her thirteenth birthday.” The caseworker hauled her oversized purse onto the desk. Her brass knuckles clunked against the blotter.
He sieved air through his teeth. He’d warned her about weapons…
Mrs. Padilla patted his arm. “How is your daughter, Cheyenne, doing?”
He blinked at the abrupt change of subject, then he caught the link. His daughter had been thirteen when Billy McGuire had spiked her drink with GHB. He might have gotten away with the rape had he not left bite marks and saliva along with the bruises. “She finishes her final exams today, then she’s officially a High School Senior.”
“You’re a good Papa.” Mrs. Padilla kissed her two fingers then transferred it to the photograph in a smear of apricot lipstick.
He was now. He hadn’t been then. William McGuire senior had even attempted to coerce Cheyenne into recanting her statement, to say the sex was consensual. The bastard deserved to die. Brent only wished CPS had gained custody of young Billy. There were a few foster families who would have taught the punk the meaning of respect before his prison stint. Shaking off the past, Brent handed over the three files in his hands. “I’m sorry to do this…”
Mrs. Padilla flapped her hand then added the new cases to the stack on her right. “It is always the way, isn’t it?”
“Unfortunately.” And lately the numbers were multiplying. He’d have to submit paperwork for another full time employee while they filled the two vacant positions. He turned back to his office.
Detective Nora Norworks snapped her gum in his doorway. Lean as a predator, she spun her sunglasses by the earpiece. Her Glock hung low on her hip and peeked at the world under cover of her jacket. Balancing on her Rockports, she hummed with energy, like a dancer waiting for her cue to spring into action.
Or catch the Justice Killer.
Stop it. He’d left no evidence, and his job required interaction with the police. Although not usually a detective. Stuffing his shaking hands into his trouser pockets, he shuffled toward her. “Detective Norworks, how can I help you?”
She squinted at him and stopped chewing. “Have we met before?”
Acid erupted into his esophagus. Was this a personal visit? “You’ve been on television a lot in the last couple months.”
She blew a gray bubble, let it burst against her lips. “Are you a Justice Killer groupie, Mr. Zindell?”
His world collapsed to a pinprick of light then blew back up into real time. Damn. Damn. Damn. She couldn’t know. He shook his head slowly. “I’m a father, and you’re heading the investigation of that drug that’s making people crazy. I don’t know all of Cheyenne’s friends.” He lied, but he had an agenda to keep. Sighing, he sank onto his seat. “If she’s hanging out with the bad element taking that new designer drug, I want to know the signs.”
“Uh-huh.” Norworks snapped her gum again before shoving it to the side of her mouth. “I came to give you a list of names.”
“Names?” Brent patted his desk once. Twice. On the third time, he pretended to find the pen against his stapler. Pulling it out, he flipped over the envelope from Judge Alvarez’s chambers and clicked the top. “Who is the child?”
“Was.” Shrugging open her coat, she ripped out a torn piece of paper and slapped it on his mound of files. “These are the DBs we’ve collected during the last twelve hours. Nice job your department’s doing there, Stretch.”
He bit the inside of his jaw. Only the lowest intelligence poked fun at his height. He jerked the list from under her palm and read the names. He’d given Mrs. Padilla two of the cases.
A crash sounded from the break room. Curses in Spanish, Mandarin, and English quickly followed.
“Oh, and add Abigail Weathersby.” The detective cracked her knuckles. Her leg jumped as if connected to a live wire. “She passed on ten minutes ago. Guess, it’s not hard to miss a bleeder in a child that small.”
Brent scratched the girl’s name to the bottom. He wanted to ask about arrests but couldn’t seem too interested. He had the parents’ address. He would take care of them later. “Anything else?”
Detective Norwork’s nostrils twitched. “Anything else? Anything else?” She unsnapped the cover of her holster. “How many dead children do you have to fail before—”
Someone slammed against the wall. A shriek followed.
Norwork dashed out of the room.
Skirting his desk, he sprinted half a second behind her.
Theresa, the guard, planted her knee on Mrs. Padilla’s chest and pummeled the older woman’s face.
“I don’t have time for this shit.” The detective drew her gun and fired two rounds.
Crimson blossomed on Theresa’s pristine uniform shirt. Her badge skidded across the worn floor, then she slumped forward.
Norwork fired once more. Under the guard, Mrs. Padilla’s body jerked.
“What the hell!” Brent grabbed the opening of a cubicle to stop. “You shot them! You—”
The detective spun around. A wisp of smoke danced over the muzzle. The air reeked of gunpowder and hot metal. “It’s not like any of you are doing your jobs.”
She raised her weapon, aiming for his head. From two feet away, she couldn’t miss.
And Brent had no place to hide.