Tel Aviv

Happy Birthday

The sky over Tel Aviv is an oil slick. The vista looks like something I would paint on a bad day—clouds dark and ominous, the color of weathered steel, gather along on the horizon, promising all kinds of chaos. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but its approach is evidenced by the nasty purple-red hue that hovers over the sprawling city like a bruise.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, Pax realized that there won’t be any strippers, and now his mood is even more ominous than the weather. He leans an elbow against the door frame of the taxi, ferociously chewing on his thumb nail. “You realize I have to go to Jerusalem. My mother will kill me if she knows I came here and didn’t visit the holy city.”

“How would she even know?” Dash is sitting in the front next to the driver, observing the buildings that fly past the window with a level of detachment that comes from having traveled the world eight times over already. I’m sure nothing looks new to him anymore.  “You haven’t been on speaking terms with Meredith in two years. I doubt she has an alert set up to notify her when you leave the country.”

Pax stills, his thumb nail trapped between his front teeth. His eyes are like liquid mercury as he drills holes into the back of Dash’s head. “Where the fuck do you get off, calling her Meredith?”

“That’s her name, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s her name or not. You can’t talk about her like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you know her.”

Dash looks back over his shoulder, smiling his angelic boy-can-do-no-wrong smile. “I do know her. I’ve met her at least eight times. Fascinating woman. She’s always been very nice to me.”

An outsider would hear Dashiell’s words and think them cordial. Polite, even. It’s the accent. Dash can sound perfectly civil because of that damned English accent. The edge to his tone means that he’s suggesting that Pax’s mom was very nice to him, though. Nicer than she should have been. And Pax can hear that tone just as well as I can. His ears pull back like a dog’s.

I lean forward, knuckling Dash in the spine hard enough that he yelps. “We’re not doing that. Not today. We’re all jetlagged as fuck and in need of a bed. Fighting in a taxi isn’t gonna do any of us any favors.”

“Speak for yourself. I feel fine.” Dashiell presses the pad of his index finger against the window. “Look at that. They have Seven-Eleven here. Weird.”

“I can’t be in Israel and not go to Jerusalem,” Pax growls. “She will find out. She’ll know. And what the hell am I supposed to tell her? Sorry, Ma, I couldn’t visit the birthplace of our lord and savior because we were too busy killing a man?”

The taxi driver, who’s spoken broken, sporadic English since we got in the car, descends into a fit of coughing, grasping at the steering wheel as if he’s having trouble maintaining control of the vehicle.

I give Pax a look sharp enough to puncture a lung. “We’re not killing anyone. We’re here for a light maiming and that’s all.”

“I don’t see why we even came to do that.” Dash takes out his cell phone and begins to flip through the messages that started to filter through to his phone the moment we left the airport. “This has nothing to do with us. It also has nothing to do with you, which makes the whole thing even more perplexing. I thought you hated that girl.”

“Hating people is for children. I don’t hate anyone.”

“Apart from Mercy,” Pax mutters. “And your father. And Fitz. And me sometimes.”

I grin at him, all fucking teeth. “Only when you leave your shit all over my room or borrow books without asking.”

“We live together. It’s not like you won’t know where they are,” he gripes.

“Okay. I’ll rephrase. When you borrow books without asking, don’t return them to me, and when I do get them back, they’re dogeared and covered in hot sauce, you fucking philistine.”

He just grunts at that. Can’t deny his crimes. They’ve been too frequent and heinous for anything other than a complete admission of guilt. He changes the subject instead. “So. This guy did something bad to the girl you’re not interested in. And you’ve dragged us across the world to come and hurt the motherfucker, because you don’t care about Elodie, and you couldn’t give a shit if she lives or dies. Can we just go over this again so I can get it straight in my head? This all seems very drastic, un-Wren-like behavior from where I’m sitting.”

I gouge my fingernails into the stitching of the pleather seat beneath me, my feelings roiling away like a swarm of angry wasps. I didn’t even think I was capable of anything so obvious and clichéd as feelings, and yet there they are, making my life a living hell. “You didn’t read the file,” I say tightly. “You didn’t read what he did to her.”

“I understand that the guy might be a piece of work, Jacobi,” Dash says. “But you’re no fucking saint. You were planning on breaking the girl’s heart up until a few days ago. And—no, no, no, don’t even. If you try and pretend like that’s still the plan, I will unfriend you on Facebook and never speak to you again.”

I swallow down the objection I was just about to make, staring glumly out of the window. “I don’t have Facebook.”

“Semantics. You were planning on causing this girl grief. Now, you’ve done a complete one-eighty and designated yourself her knight in shining armor. This is an act of chivalry.”

“It’s an act of insanity,” Pax grumbles.

I don’t want to lie to them. I also don’t want to admit the fact that they’re right, either. I take the file out of my bag in the footwell, silently handing it to Pax. He rolls his eyes—clearly doesn’t want to read it—but he opens it up and begins to scan the page. A frown creases his forehead. I watch him as he reads, and then goes back to the beginning, his eyes moving more slowly as he takes it all in for a second time. “Jesus Christ,” he hisses.

Dash holds his hand out, waiting for Pax to give it to him. I’m too hot. My clothes are itchy as fuck. I’m so uncomfortable, sharing this part of Elodie’s history with them, that I almost snatch the file away from Dash and call the whole thing off. This was a very reckless decision on my part. I have put these guys in an untenable position that would make most people flip their fucking shit. Am I so bewitched by this girl that I’ve thrown them in harm’s way without really thinking it through? Maybe it would be better if—

“Holy…fucking…shit,” Dash whispers. “This is…I don’t even…”

“I know.”

“All right. Fine,” Pax grinds out. “I see where you’re coming from.”

I catch sight of Dash’s face in the rearview mirror and he looks like he’s about to throw up. “Yeah. Fine. I get it now.”

“So, we hurt the guy,” Pax says, nodding. “He fucking deserves it. Fair enough. But this…this doesn’t mean I’m gonna be nice to her when we get back, Jacobi.”

I laugh, even though my throat feels raw and cut to ribbons. “I’d never dream of suggesting such a thing.”

The taxi driver hits the gas, burning through traffic. I get the feeling that he wants to drop us at our destination as quickly as possible and then pretend he never laid eyes on us. I let my head fall back against the seat, breathing a sigh of quiet relief. I hate sharing secrets that even I have no business knowing, but it had to be done. I knew they wouldn’t question the logic behind this terrible task once they’d seen the evidence before them in print. We Riot House boys might be assholes to the extreme…but even we won’t stand by and allow this kind of evil to go unpunished.


Twenty-Four Hours Later

  The Longhorn Saloon is one of many American bars in Tel Aviv. It just so happens to be the closest one to the home address that I stole out of Elodie’s student file at the academy. It’s also the closest American bar to Colonel Stillwater’s base. I’ve done my research. We don’t just pick the spot on the off chance the bastard will be there. I hired someone to hack Elodie’s father’s financial accounts. Aside from noticing that his bank balance is in the high six figure range, it quickly became apparent that he spends at least eighty to a hundred dollars every couple of days at The Longhorn Saloon, and he’s always closing out his tabs well after midnight. So, the fucker doesn’t just drink here; he’s a regular.

Pax scored us all fake IDs a long time ago. Getting into the bar isn’t a problem. No one even asks to see the damn things, anyway. It’s only after our first beer that we realize the legal drinking age in Israel is eighteen and the bar staff really don’t give a shit. The place is packed with Americans. Half of them are tourists, the other half jar heads. They’re rowdy and boisterous, the staff are too harried to worry about the three of us.

We order a beer a piece and claim a corner booth—the best vantage point to clock people as they come in and out of the bar. Dashiell pretends to pore over a ‘Lonely Planet Pocket Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’ guidebook. Meanwhile, Pax does absolutely nothing to reinforce the idea that we might be tourists by openly glaring at everyone who walks through the door.

“If you don’t quit that, we’re gonna get lynched,” Dash tells him. “I do hate getting lynched in bars with you. Plus, we’re supposed to be doing the lynching this time.”

“I can’t help it.” Pax wrinkles his nose. “Smells weird in here.”

“Smells like peanuts and stale booze.” I knock back a mouthful of beer. “If you blow our cover before we’ve even seen Stillwater, I’m gonna be royally pissed, man. Just chill, for fuck’s sake.”

Pax holds up the New York Times he picked up by the front door, shielding his face with it. The move doesn’t help our cover, but it does hide his scowl. “This guy’s a Colonel,” he grumbles. “Why the fuck would he drink in a bar with marines? Your father would never have hung out in a place like this.”

“My father likes being surrounded by his equals. I get the feeling Colonel Stillwater likes having his subordinates around, even when he’s off the clock. Probably the only form of respect a man like him can get.”

An hour passes. We order another round of beers. I try not to fidget, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve made my peace with what I came here to do, but this whole thing is still really fucking stupid. If we get caught…

I erase the thought from my mind as soon as it rears its ugly head.

I can’t afford to even think about the consequences, should this all go sideways.

Another hour slips away. A fight breaks out on the other side of the bar by the pool table. Pax grins like he wants to join in, but a pointed look from Dash has him slumping back in his seat.

At ten, a group of girls enter the bar—from the Maple Leaf patches on their bags and their quirky vowel pronunciation, they’re Canadian. A lanky blonde wearing a tank top that exposes her tanned stomach takes one look at us and I know we’re in trouble.

“Pax. Do not engage,” Dashiell says. “Now’s not the time.”

It’s too late, though. He’s up and out of his seat before either of us can grab him.

“Motherfucker.” I slam my beer bottle down, ready to go after him, but Dash kicks me under the table.

“Let him go. It’d look weird if none of us were sniffing around the prospect of getting our dicks sucked. If anything develops, we’ll grab him.”

I don’t like this. Pax heads straight for the blonde, smiling charmingly in a way that makes me want to slap him upside the head, but I can’t do anything about it. He came here because I asked. He’s doing this because I asked. He’s made it perfectly clear that he thinks I’m making a mistake getting involved with Elodie, but that didn’t matter when it came down to it. He’s here because he’s a good friend. I can’t begrudge him a little flirtation.

The Canadian girls waste no time. The four of them gather around Pax like he’s the second coming of the Messiah, and the guy disappears, dragged down to the other end of the bar.

“I wonder if Elodie told Carina,” Dash muses, studying his fingernails. “Y’know. About the box. And…well, all of it.”

He won’t say the word rape, but that’s what he’s referring to.

I swallow down bile, wondering how a man could do such a thing to his own child. “I doubt it.”

“They seem close, don’t they? Elodie and Carina?”

“They’re friends, yeah.”

Dashiell pouts, twisting his empty beer bottle around on the table in front of him. “Elodie probably knows if Carina’s seeing someone. That’s probably something they talk about. Y’know. Because they’re girls. That’s what girls do.”

“Jesus, man. And you call me out for liking a girl?” I raise my eyebrows at him. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? If you liked her so much, why’d you mess with her like that?”

He’s suddenly very engrossed in the Lonely Planet guide. “Whoa. They have a preserved acropolis in Jaffa. Looks like a fun time.”


He shoots me a scathing look and tosses the guide back onto the table. “Let’s just say we’re both pathetic and leave it at that, huh?”

“Hey, fuckos!”

I look up. Pax is waving at us, a loose, drunken smile plastered across his face. He’s not drunk. His tolerance for alcohol is legendary, and he only had three beers. He can’t have fit in more than a couple of shots with the girls in the time that he’s been gone. “Assholes! Get over here! You gotta meet my new friend. He’s a fuckin’ Army colonel.”

Fire courses up my spine, my senses all triggering at once. He’s found Stillwater on the other side of the bar? “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I hiss.

“Should have known. Pax is a trouble magnet. We should have let him loose two hours ago.” Dash grimly drains the dregs of his beer and gets up from the booth. I follow after him, my heart pounding like a sledgehammer as I weave my way through the crowd. It stops dead altogether when I see Pax with his arm thrown around the shoulders of a man I recognize immediately.

The man’s a tank. His shoulders are broad, his neck is nonexistent. It’s as though his head just goes straight into his barrel of a chest. His hair is light but buzzed close to his scalp, much like the other Army personnel inside the bar. Jason Stillwater is a bruiser and a tyrant. I see that when he locks eyes with me—eyes that are the same color blue as Elodie’s, but there is nothing kind, or sweet, or gentle about them. A violent, cruel light dances within them that has me setting my jaw and baying for the man’s blood. I would have hated him on sight, even if I hadn’t known what he did to Elodie, but I do know. He’s a giant compared to his daughter; all I can see is his hulking frame pinning her to the ground, forcing her legs apart, pushing himself inside her—

Get a grip, Jacobi. No time for that.

Dash sways a little. He claps a hand on my shoulder, seemingly for balance—we’ll both need to play into Pax’s drunken ruse now—but I know the contact is also a reassurance. A ‘don’t worry, man. We got your back.’

Pax’s eyes are glassy and unfocused when we pitch up next to him. God knows how he accomplishes that. “Listen. This guy’s been out here for—” fake hiccup “—nearly six years! He’s a higher-up in the Army. Tell ’em where else you’ve lived, man. Go on, tell ’em!” Our friend nudges Elodie’s father, bumping him with his shoulder, and Colonel Stillwater clenches his jaw. Beer sloshes over the side of his pint glass, spilling a pool of beer onto the lacquered bar top. I can practically see the steam billowing out of his ears, but Stillwater reins in his temper. He’s a fan of hero worship. Why cause a scene if someone’s planning on deifying you to his friends? Stillwater’s the kind of guy who’d happily suspend his rage in exchange for a glowing compliment.

There’s a moment where he’s organizing what he’s going to say, his lips parted, his eyes full of self-importance, and I breathe in that second. I haven’t heard his voice yet. The voice that haunts Elodie’s nightmares. Just like her, I won’t be able to unhear it.

And then the bubble bursts.

“England. Germany. All over the Middle East, of course. Honduras. But the most interesting places, I can’t tell you about. Most of my work’s top secret. The kind of stuff that’d make little boys like you piss your pants and go running home to Mommy.” He laughs into his pint glass, so goddamn pleased with himself. “God. I really wish I could talk about some of that shit. It’d blow your minds to Timbuktu and back again, believe me.”

Oh, I believe you, Jason. I’m sure you have tales so horrific that they’d turn my stomach until the end of days. How many human rights atrocities have you committed? How many international laws have you broken? How many men have you murdered, and women have you raped, because the uniform on your back gave you the power to do so?

I shiver as I contemplate the number.

Jason circles a finger in the air at the bartender, wordlessly ordering a round of drinks for us all. An anger so hot and acidic rises up the back of my throat, burning as it climbs. I’d rather die of thirst than drink anything this man buys for me, but I have an act to maintain here. It’s imperative that he doesn’t grow suspicious; he’ll be out of here in a shot if I do anything to raise the alarm.

I laugh and holler with Pax and Dash as the bartender puts our beers down in front of us, making sure that my grin makes it to my eyes as I cheers my glass to Jason’s.

“That’s so fucking awesome, dude,” Dashiell drawls. Gone is his English accent. In its place: a perfect, easy American accent, clean enough that he could be from California, but with the tiniest hint of a clipped vowel sound that could hint at southern roots. It’s flawless, this transition that he undergoes when the situation demands it. No one would guess he wasn’t an American, born and raised. Maintaining his regular accent in a place like this would be a bad idea. It marks him as different. Noticeable. Memorable. And the last thing any of us needs to be right now is memorable. “My grandfather was in the Navy. I thought about joining up—”

Jason’s face twists with open disgust. “Fucking Navy pussies. You got a vagina, kid?”

Dashiell lowers his beer, a picture of chastised youth. “No, sir?”

“Then why the fuck you wanna join the Navy for? Are you a man?”

“Yes, sir.” More firmly this time.

“Then stop being a little bitch and join the Army. That’s what men do. An’ if you ain’t a man yet, don’t worry yourself. The Army’ll make you one in short order.”

“What’s the pay like?” Pax leans an elbow on the bar next to Jason, drunkenly slipping a little, almost falling face first into the guy’s lap. When this is all over, I’ll be having words with him about his performance. There’s being persuasive, and then there’s being a little on the nose. He’s going to blow this entire thing if he carries on like this.

“What’s the pay like? What does it fucking matter?” Jason snarls. “If you love your country, and you want to protect its people, and defend the American way of life, you’d do the work for free, ya little punk.” He laughs, though, letting us know that he’s joking. “But since you ask, the pay is about what you’d expect. It’s garbage. You’ll have to save three month’s wages just so you can afford a hooker for the night. But there are other benefits. Tax breaks and shit. Plus, the longer you’re in, the more you make, naturally. I got myself a neat little nest egg these days.”

“So, you’re, like, some big swinging dick, then?” Pax asks. The girls that brought him over here have grown bored and are filtering away, slowly making their way to a booth that’s just opened up. That’s for the best. The less time they spend with us, the more our faces will fade from memory once their shots start to kick in. Pax gives Elodie’s father a sly look, one eye screwed shut. “Are you the highest-ranking officer in this room?”

“Hah! Boy, I’m the highest-ranking officer in a two-hundred-mile radius. Nothing happens in Tel Aviv without me knowing about it. Screw the Israeli police. I’m the fucking king of this city. I can do whatever I want. Say whatever I want.” His alcohol-soaked gaze follows a pretty waitress as she hurries over to a table, her arms full of food. “Take what I want…”

Motherfucking sick, evil, piece of…

“What’s wrong with you, anyway, pretty boy? Cat got your tongue? You haven’t said a word since you came over here.”

Pretty boy? He’s gonna wish he’d never called me that. I flash him a dumb, inebriated smile that seems to appease him. “Sorry, dude. I just…I’m not feeling…I’m—” I hold a hand against my stomach, puffing out my cheeks.

“Uh oh. He’s been chugging scotch since we got here,” Dashiell explains. “Is it safe to stand on the street out front? I reckon he needs a little fresh air.”

“Safe? Of course it’s safe.”

“Okay. Cool. We’d just heard that tourists can get jumped around here is all. We’d be screwed if we lost our money and our passpo—”

“Christ sake. Bunch of pussies.” Jason sets his beer down. The legs of his bar stool screech as he pushes the chair back and gets to his feet. “I’ll come with you. Just long enough to finish a smoke. If he’s still green around the gills after that, you’ll have to figure it out on your own.”

Ahhh, good ol’ predictable Jason. Such a big man. No one would dare fuck with him. Of course he was going to offer to play bodyguard. He likes how being in charge makes him feel. Dashiell’s father is exactly the same, which is how he knew that little ploy would work, I’m sure. Pretend we’re completely inept, useless, spoiled teenagers who need their hands held, even to step outside for a minute? Jason Stillwater couldn’t resist.

Dash and Pax lead the way, drunkenly carousing with one another as they head for the exit. I follow, weaving from side to side, colliding with a chair or two for effect, and all the while I feel Jason’s presence close behind me. It takes a monumental effort not to turn around and smash a beer bottle over his head. Jagged, broken glass, biting through flesh, scraping against bone. I imagine it. The feeling’s so real that my palms begin to burn…

Outside, the warm night air slips over my skin like silk. Opposite the bar, a row of fast food joints and takeaway spots are all lit up, spilling the smell of delicious grilled meats, herbs and spices from their open doorways. My stomach growls, which is a little wrong, given what’s about to happen.

Elodie’s father pulls a pack of smokes from the back pocket of his jeans, tapping a cigarette out of the torn opening at the top. I watch him as he lights up, head bowed over the flame, imagining the damage and destruction he’s wrought with those meaty, clumsy hands of his.

“Can I bum one of those?” I ask.

He squints at me, shaking his head. “Shit. You kids never have your own damn cigarettes.” Still, he gives me the pack. I take a smoke, pinch it between my teeth, and give them back to him.

He squints even harder at me. “I know you’re drunk, kid, but typically you are supposed to light the thing.”

“Oh. I’m saving it for after,” I tell him.

“After what?”

“Whoa!” Pax grabs Dashiell by the arm, hitting him repeatedly. “You just see that girl? Fuck, she was hot. Like, a fucking eight.”

I’m instantly forgotten about. Like a shark that’s scented blood, Jason’s head whips around. “Where?”

Dashiell groans morosely, letting his head hang back on his shoulders. If this situation wasn’t what it is, this whole play-acting thing of his would be entertaining. He’s always so uptight, his back so uncompromisingly straight, everything about him so overly controlled. This loosey-goosey American version of him is fucking fascinating. “She went down that alleyway. And she wasn’t an eight, dude. She was an eleven.”

“Brunette?” Jason asks.

Before I know what I’m doing, I’m jumping in on the charade. “Nope. Blonde. Small. Petite. Big, beautiful blue eyes. She looked like a little china doll, man.”

Jason bares his teeth in a telling, horrific way. A mixture of anger and lust war against one another on his face. His reaction tells me everything I need to know. He’s already thinking about this innocent blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl. Thinking about fucking her. Thinking about hurting her. He doesn’t realize that I’ve just described his own fucking daughter to him, and that any shadow of doubt or remorse I might have had over this violent course of action I’m about to embark upon is now well and truly dead in the water.

Sick. Mother. Fucker.

Jason’s gaze bounces from me, to Dash and settles on Pax. “You all saw her apart from me? Well, that doesn’t seem fair, does it, boys? Which way did she go?”

Pax points down an alleyway on the other side of the street, the slack, drunk smile falling from his features. “Down there.”

“That’s a dead end. Probably ducked down there to take a piss. Drunk chicks are always doing that around here.”

We already know the alleyway is a dead end. We scoped all of the side streets close to the bar before we even stepped foot inside The Longhorn Saloon. We settled on that particular alleyway because there are no security cameras. Plus, it’s narrow and dark enough that passersby on the main drag will never notice a disturbance down there and risk coming to find out what was going on.

Jason chews the inside of his cheek, assessing the mouth of the alleyway. He comes to his decision—the decision I knew he was going to make—very quickly. “Come on, boys. If the dirty bitch wants to piss in public, she needs to be prepared for the consequences. Let’s go scare her a little.”

“Sure that’s a good idea?” Dash nervously rubs at the back of his neck.

One last chance.

One brief opportunity to redeem himself.

Jason waves him off. “Like I said. She needs to learn a lesson. If she’s gonna drop her drawers in public, she can’t get upset if a group of guys wind up seeing her pussy. Serves her right.”

Perfect, Jason. Thanks for doubling down and reinforcing the fact that you are a disgusting, vile, wicked piece of shit who does not deserve to draw breath.

He sets off across the road, pulling on his cigarette and sending a voluminous cloud of smoke up into the night sky as he urges us to follow along behind him. “Quick. We’ll miss it,” he hisses.

I trade a look with my friends, each of us now stone cold sober as we jog across the street, following Jason into the alleyway. Neither Dash nor Pax flinch as we give each other a stiff nod.

This is what we came here for. We flew thousands of miles to take care of this problem, and now the time is upon us. Jason’s almost at the very end of the alleyway when he turns around, a deep frown creasing his brow. “You guys must be drunk as fuck. There’s no girl down he—”

The whole thing’s beautiful: the wind up; my elbow coming back; my hand forming a fist and then flying forward. I’ve punched plenty of people in my life, and I’ll punch plenty more, but this right hook will forever be emblazoned in my mind as the punch.

When my knuckles make contact with the bastard’s face, pain screams up my arm like a lightning bolt, settling into my shoulder. His head jerks back, jaw exposed, and then he’s toppling backward like a felled tree, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring crack.

“Ooooof. Was that your head?” Pax laughs, lazily propping himself up against the crumbling brick wall. “You just got your bell rung, son.”

“Jesus. His skull probably split open like a watermelon.” Dashiell’s English accent is back with a vengeance.

Sprawled out on the floor of the filthy alleyway, Colonel Jason Stillwater stirs, groaning in pain. I think I actually knocked the fucker out. Must have, because he collects himself out of nowhere, as if returning to his body. He’s all arms and legs as he tries to get back on his feet. Following three failed attempts, he manages it, though he’s so wobbly he looks like he might go down again at any moment.

His eyes flash with fury. “What the fuck, kid? Are you…?” He spits blood, his face turning purple when he holds his hand to his mouth and it comes away red. “Are you fucking insane? I’m a goddamn colonel in the United States Army. You…you can’t just fucking hit me.”

I robotically slide off my leather jacket, holding it out to Dash, who takes it from me, folding it nearly over his arm for safekeeping. “But I just did,” I tell him. “You don’t want me to hit you, Colonel Stillwater? You’re gonna have to stop me, you sick fuck.”

He frowns, incredulity plastered all over his ugly face; it’s impossible that such a beautiful girl could have come from such a repellant man’s DNA. Elodie’s mother must have been breathtaking and had very strong genes.

“I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing, boy, but you are in way over your head right now.” From his tone, Jason thinks I’m mentally compromised in some way. Obviously, he can’t grasp how anyone in their right minds would dare lay a finger on a man as important as himself. “No helping you now. You’ve committed a serious felony. Damaging the government of the United States’ property? Bad, kid. That’s very bad. There’s gonna be consequences. No two ways about it. But…turn yourself over now. I’ll go easy on you. I’ll make sure they know you were drunk. Tryin’ to act the big man an’ shit. You’ll probably get off with some community service.”

God, this feels way better than I thought it would. The man who raped and killed his wife, and then raped and beat his daughter is actually scared. He’s a brute of a guy, with muscles on top of muscles, but they’re all for show. The motherfucker’s been taking steroids for years by the look of him. He has no real stamina. He won’t move quickly. He’s a lumbering, heavy, clumsy giant, who’s about to get his ass handed to him and he knows it.

I crack my knuckles, running my tongue over my teeth. “Not happening, Jason. Not in this lifetime.” With quick, methodical movements, I roll the sleeves of my shirt up, cuffing the material at my elbows—a doctor, ready to perform an unpleasant but necessary task. “We’ve got time for a chat, though. Just a brief one, before we get down to business.”

I take a step toward him, and Jason balks. He lunges to my left, trying to slip past me, but Pax is suddenly there, blocking his escape route. Stupid fucker actually tries to dart the other way, to the left, which is where he runs straight into Dash. The three of us proceed as one, walking toward him, which leaves Jason no choice but to back the fuck up.

“You’re dead men. God, can’t you see how fucking nuts this is? You can’t just assault a high-ranking member of the military, boys. It ain’t gonna work out well for you.”

“See, on paper, there are a lot of things a person shouldn’t be able to get away with.” I glance up at the moon, visible in the snapshot of sky overhead, framed between the two buildings on either side of the alleyway. “For instance, a man shouldn’t be able to murder someone, no matter his status, rank or position. Nor should he be allowed to violate his own daughter and trap her in a box for days on end, either. Those are definitely two things that no one should be able to get away with.”

Stone-cold horror pools in Jason’s eyes. I can smell it on him—the disgusting reek of animal fear. He had no clue why we were doing this a moment ago, but now he does. It’s a pleasure to watch the realization dawning on him as he fumbles, hands going to his pockets.

“Uh uh uh.” Pax goes for the fucker, grabbing him, forcing his right hand behind his back. “We don’t like cell phones,” he spits in the guy’s face. “Be nice if we kept this friendly little conversation between the four of us, if that’s alright with you.” He shoves his hand into Jason’s pocket, fishing his phone out and dropping it to the floor. Jason wrenches himself free, dropping to grab the device, but Pax has already kicked it, sending it skittering across the alleyway toward me.

I wonder what kind of poison is stored on the phone of a man like Jason Stillwater. I could bring it back to the States with me. Have it cracked. I bet there’s some really dark, messed up shit on there that could have Jason thrown behind bars for the rest of his natural life. I don’t plan on letting the law deal with this fucker, though. He’s right, he’s too powerful for that. The military will step in and have him cleared of any wrongdoing in the blink of an eye, just like they did after he shot his wife and hurt Elodie. No, whatever sinister evil is saved on Jason’s phone is irrelevant. I’ll make him pay for what he’s done and then some. I’ll make him bleed enough to cover whatever sins he’s hiding on the iPhone at my feet. Casually, I place my boot down on the screen and I transfer my weight, smiling slightly as the glass cracks beneath my heel.

“Listen, whatever she’s told you is a lie, y’know. Elodie. This is about my daughter, isn’t it?” Jason casts a glance back over his shoulder, his ruddy face paling when he realizes that he’s almost out of alleyway. Behind him, a ten-foot-high brick wall stands between him and his freedom. “She…she’s just like her mother,” he stammers. “Always lying. Always manipulating everyone around her. She…she wouldn’t know the truth if it leapt up and bit her on the ass. Whatever she’s told you— wait!”

I grin, looking up at him from under drawn brows, and he knows it’s too late. Bargaining won’t get him anywhere. There’s no lie he can tell that will save him now. I throw myself on him and my adrenalin-soaked rage takes over.

He’ll never hurt her again.

He’ll never threaten her again.

Once I’m done with him, he’ll never utter the name Elodie Stillwater again. He’ll be lucky if he even fucking remembers it.

After the first few hits, Jason seems to recall that I’m just a seventeen-year-old guy and starts swinging his own fists. But I don’t mind the pain. The bright sting of freshly opened knuckles, and the dull thumping in my jaw, and the breathless agony in my ribs is all worth it. Just like Jason said a minute ago, there are consequences to a man’s actions; I’m perfectly willing to pay this price if it means this sick psychopath gets what he deserves.

When I begin to flag, scrambling to pin the monster down, Dash and Pax both jump in, playing their part in this symphony of pain.

Soon, Jason Stillwater is nothing more than a raw lump of meat, lying in a pool of his own blood in the moonlight.

“Shhhit! Come on, man, it’s over,” Pax hisses, pulling me away from the body. I can’t look away, though. Can’t make my legs obey the simplest of commands. A bark of manic laughter bursts out of my mouth, bouncing off the alley walls.

Wren? Jesus Christ, he’s fucking losing it,” Dash says, somewhere behind me. “Quick. Get him up. Get him moving.”

“What are you doing?” Pax snarls.

“Getting the bastard’s wallet. We play our cards right and this looks like a robbery—”

Dash keeps talking, but I don’t hear him. Pax grabs me by the arm and drags me to my feet, but I feel none of it.

All I can see is the bloody, swollen face of the man who hurt her.

And all I can feel is an overwhelming joy in the knowledge that he will never do it again.

As the boys drag me away from Jason Stillwater’s mangled, lifeless body, I spark up the cigarette the sick fucker gave to me.

The burn of the smoke in my lungs tastes like goddamn victory.