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Black Sheep: Chapter 34

BRIA

I wake up disoriented and in pain, unsure of where I am and struggling to remember how I got here. It takes me longer than it should to realize I’m not at Honeycomb House anymore. I’m at Rose Cottage, a little fifties-era bungalow with a stained glass rose in the window of the door. I turn off the alarm on my watch. I’ve slept for four hours.

“Fuck,” I whisper, sitting up with a groan.

First thing’s first, morphine.

I give myself a shot, just enough to take the edge off the throbbing pulse of pain. Then I stand and hobble my way to the bathroom.

I let the water run as it heats for my shower, taking a long look at myself in the mirror as condensation slowly accumulate on the polished glass. Predictably, I look like shit. I’m pale with blood loss and exhaustion, my skin scratched from the branches when I hauled myself out of the water on the far side of the lake and limped to the hidden bug-out bag. My hair still has broken twigs and leaves stuck in the knots. My lip and forehead are cut from when I passed out and hit my face on a fallen log. Fortunately, I guess, that hit kept me awake.

After I made it to the shore following the worst swim of my life, I used the emergency medical pack to keep myself together. I cleaned my wounds and injected myself with penicillin. I bandaged my arm where the bullet tore through muscle but missed the bone. But my leg has been more of an issue. Though the bullet passed through my biceps femoris without hitting anything critical, it still tore shit up. I lost a fair amount of blood in Lake McDonald, and who the fuck knows what’s now swimming around in my bloodstream. After flushing the hole clean, I stopped the bleeding with QuikClot, but the pain is intense and now that the swelling has set in, I can barely move my leg.

I push myself away from the sink and carefully maneuver into the shower, tilting my head back in the water, letting the hot droplets pelt my face. I’d love to stay right here but I can’t. I have to move. I might not be safe.

Far too soon, I’m stepping out of the shower. I’ve already been here at Rose Cottage longer than I’d hoped. I need to keep moving. I only stayed at Honeycomb long enough to arrange an express courier to deliver a letter to Samuel at Cedar Ridge. His phone is too risky. So is our server. In the end, the only option was a handwritten note. With shaky strokes of the pen, I detailed my plan and requests, my final wishes.

I check my watch. Samuel should have received my courier two hours ago.

Time to get to work.

If I don’t get Caron now, I’m afraid we’ll all lose our shot. But I’m under no illusions about my chances to succeed.

I change my bandages, my leg bruised and swollen, the flesh purple and red, angry and raw. For a moment, I close my eyes, leaning my chin on my knee as I remember the feeling of Samuel’s fingers as he cleaned the wounds on my back every night after he’d saved me in Nevada. There was pain, of course, but there was deliverance in his gentle touch too. There was salvation in his words. I cannot promise you a life free of pain, Sombria. But I will give you the tools to fight back.

I open my eyes.

It’s time to fight back.

When my skin is clean and I pull fresh workout clothes over the weeping wounds, I leave Rose Cottage in the Jeep that was hidden near the bug-out cache at Lake McDonald, heading west to the outskirts of town.

I park on a gravel road bisecting fields of harvested corn, sliding out from the driver’s seat as I take out a new burner phone and text the mobile I left with Cynthia’s Praetorian bodyguard.

Send a message for Caron to call me in five minutes. Confirm and the number will be provided. 

After a brief moment, the response comes. I send my number.

Another moment later, the phone rings. Like last time, it’s forwarded through a landline to keep this number safe.

“Hello, little wolf,” Caron says, the amusement like a bright star that lights up his voice. “I was hoping you’d drowned.”

There’s no laptop to disguise my voice; no point in hiding it anymore. “Surprise, motherfucker.”

Caron chuckles. I desperately want to fold my fingers around his throat and squeeze until it snaps. “I should thank you,” he drawls, taking his time with each word. “You got rid of Cynthia. Well done, taking out an informant for me. How very kind.”

“I’m nothing if not generous.” I pull a mask over my malice as I examine a chip in the black polish of my manicure. “What are you wearing right now?”

A scoff of a laugh crackles through the phone. “Isn’t that a question you should be asking my brother?”

My heart crumples behind my bones for Eli. All this time mourning the brother he’d lost, and Caron must have been there, watching from afar, indifferent to his suffering. I swallow my rage on Eli’s behalf. “Humor me, Gabe. Caron. Whatever. Actually no, I bet I can guess. You’re in a robe, lounging by a pool. Some brainwashed, traumatized woman is next to you, hoping you’ll fill whatever void some asshole carved out in her life, though you have no intention of doing so. You’re probably sipping a margarita, imagining it’ll only be a matter of time until I’m dead of sepsis and you can go back to your life of manipulating people because that’s the only way you can make friends.”

“So close, little wolf. It’s a matcha latte with Lamb Health’s ethically-sourced coconut milk.”

“Of course it is. My bad.” I turn, looking at the frayed stalks of harvested corn, the sun sinking toward the horizon in the distance. “I guess you’ve been enjoying yourself too much to notice.”

“Notice what?” Caron asks, arrogance thick in his voice.

“Isn’t it a little…quiet…where you are? A little too quiet?” There’s a long pause, then a rustle of fabric on the end of the line. “Don’t you feel like something’s…missing?”

Fabric shifts and a woman says something unintelligible in the background. I imagine Caron sliding from his bed or rising from a lounge chair, his matcha latte forgotten as he comes to realize something’s not quite right.

A smile warms me from my very core.

“Ruh-roh, Raggy. Did you forget to give your Praetorian guard dogs their Scooby Snacks?” More movement crackles across the line before it goes completely silent. “Are you on mute, my Little Bo-Peep? I was really hoping to hear the sound of your epiphany.”

Another long pause.

You—”

“They’re all gone, Caron. And they snuck a bunch of your devoted flock out with them. Everyone has a price, you see, even Koffi N’Doli, and sometimes it’s not the dollars you have that gets the job done.”

I can almost hear Caron’s thoughts stacking up like blocks, one realization teetering on the next until they all come tumbling down.

Samuel has done it. He’s found a way to pull Caron’s security. No one is there to protect him. And we stole his lambs from under his watch.

There’s no greater sound than Caron’s quick and quiet breathing between us, and I relish every moment, ready to store it among my trophies. “What do you want,” he finally demands.

“To meet. In person. Alone. And no, I don’t want to kill you. I would have done it already. If you do not agree to meet, or if you show up with anyone, Praetorian will be instructed to release all of their information on you to the FBI.”

Another muted pause. I imagine him having a little tantrum in the background, like a chastised child.

“Where,” he grits out.

“52 Fuller Place. Midnight,” I say, checking my watch. It should give him just enough time to make it from his Vellera compound, if he leaves now.

I hang up the phone.

My heart bangs an excited song on the walls of my chest as I lean against the Jeep. I’m one step closer. I toss the burner into the ditch and drive away.

I head to the abandoned gas station where we gathered for the Autumn Adder, parking where I have a view of the edge of the city beyond the rolling foothills. It’s quiet here. There’s no wind when I exit the Jeep. I limp toward the spot where Eli fought Wilson and look down at the drops of blood still clinging to the cracked asphalt in a dark stain. The broken tooth is there on the ground. I balance on my good leg and bend to pick it up, rolling the jagged edges across my palm.

I wonder what Eli felt in that moment when he pinned Wilson down and pummeled him with blows. I wonder if he feels guilt now in the aftermath when he looks back on what he did. I know what I would have felt. Excitement. Enjoyment. A deep sense of satisfaction, that my physical self and my darkest desires were aligned. Definitely not guilt. Not for something like that.

I tilt my hand, letting the tooth roll off my palm to drop onto the pavement with a quiet tick. I’m staring down at it when I realize I feel something I’ve never felt before.

Regret. Guilt.

For hurting Eli.

I should have told him everything sooner. He could have made up his mind about us before he’d put so much of his heart into it. He’s the one person I wanted to protect, and I failed.

I know I’ll never get back what I’ve lost. Not with him. Not with anyone. There’s no one like Eli. What he said about love was true, all of it. I know I can’t be the person he deserves. I can’t become someone else. The best version of myself will never fit in his world, with his rules. But there is one way I can make it right for him.

With a heavy sigh, I hobble back to the Jeep and bring up my iPad, checking the cameras at Fuller Place as dusk settles around me. Fatigue descends with it, draping over my shoulders like a cloak. I take off my watch and put an alarm on both it and the iPad. I use my teeth to help secure a zip tie to bind my wrists together, then lean back into the driver’s seat and close my eyes.

It feels like I’ve only blinked when my alarms go off. The pain is blaring in my leg and arm. My head pounds in solidarity with the rest of my body. I didn’t bring anything stronger than Ibuprofen, so I take two pills and start the Jeep, heading for Fuller Place.

52 Fuller Place is a former cannery on the outskirts of the industrial area of town. Surrounded by overgrown fields, it lies abandoned, yet in solid shape, the bricks and windows still in good repair, the structure bordered by a high, chain-link fence. I park a distance away behind a power utility shed set back from the road and check the cameras one last time, then I exit the vehicle with my plastic bag of limited equipment and start the slow process of hobbling to the cannery.

After picking the lock of the gate with the snap gun, I shuffle down the cracked driveway to the unlit building. The moon is bright enough to light my way but I still stumble a few times. A low rumble of nausea swirls in my stomach. I’m not sure if it’s the anticipation, or the drugs I’ve taken over the last day, or if it’s the inception of an infection. Whatever it is, I’m starting to feel pretty rough.

“Doesn’t matter,” I tell myself as I make it to the door and pick the lock. With my wrists still bound together, I turn and throw the snap gun into the grass, then enter the darkness of the factory, the creaking metal door closing behind me with a reverberant thud.

I turn on my flashlight, retrieving a handful of glow sticks from my back to break the first one and toss it on the floor, leaving a little trail of breadcrumbs for Caron to follow. Pigeons flutter overhead with my intrusion. Other than their rustling wings and their quiet calls of alarm, the building is silent as I limp ahead into the open space.

Cracking more glow sticks as I go, I fumble my way up the stairs where the loft stretches toward tall windows that face the moon. Since I left my watch in the Jeep, I can’t be sure what time it is, but I estimate I have thirty minutes before Caron shows up.

I take an overturned wooden chair and drag it toward the wall where a camera is bolted beyond my reach. With my bound hands pressed to the rough bricks of the wall, I take as much weight as I can off my injured left leg and step up onto the seat of the chair with my right.

“Sorry old man,” I say, though Samuel won’t be able to hear me, if he’s even watching. “I don’t want you to see.”

I’m yanking on the camera when a pain so bright it’s blinding crashes into my right leg and I fall backward from the wall, hitting the floor with a deafening smack.

My eyes peel open as water tainted by the scent of rust splashes across my face.

“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey,” Caron says, his voice swimming behind me. A throbbing pulse echoes in my head. Ten times that pain radiates from my lower leg. “I said, wakey, wakey.”

Caron nudges my leg and I scream. My vision collapses into a narrow black tunnel. More water splashes over my face.

“Hey now, little wolf. Stay with me.”

Footsteps and a deep, echoing thud circle around me until Caron is standing in my field of vision. The head of a sledgehammer rests next to his boot. He grips the handle in one fist, a rusted metal container clasped in the other.

“So sorry,” he says, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “I don’t think this water is up to the purity standards of Lamb Health.” Caron spits in the container before splashing the rest of the water onto my face.

“No worse than the rest of your shitty products,” I grumble past a cough. Caron grins as he squats down to get a closer look at my face where I lie in a patch of moonlight, then prods my leg with the metal pot. I cry out in agony and rage.

“I don’t think my supplements are going to help that.”

“You don’t say.” I drag my head across the floor to look down at my leg. Blood pools across the dust and debris, shattered bone jutting through my torn yoga pants. “I thought you were supposed to be some kind of gentle shepherd, caring for your flock. Blah blah.”

“Yeah, well… As the proverb goes, ‘An easy shepherd makes the wolf void wool.’” Caron stands and turns away, walking to the wall where the chair lays overturned. He grips the handle of the sledgehammer and swings it in an arc, hitting the camera. It explodes in shards of plastic and glass. Chips of brick rain down on the floor.

Caron turns to me and smiles, his dimple both sweet and menacing. My heart aches for how much he reminds me of his brother in some angles of the moonlight. His light brown hair looks darker. His features become more intense, like Eli’s. I blink my painful imaginings away, focusing on the real man before me as he tilts his head. “What’s with the bound wrists?” he asks.

“I like a bit of bondage.”

Caron laughs. He steps closer, the hammer thudding next to his boot like a heavy cane. I shift my head, hissing with discomfort as I watch him draw near.

“I’m not trying to kill you,” I say. He laughs again.

“Clearly. You’re on the floor.” Caron swings the hammer like a pendulum, just a gentle tap that hits my knee, but the reflex forces my leg to jerk and sends pain shooting up to my hip. I scream, tears gathering in my eyes. “I don’t think you’ll be doing much of anything.”

“I was trying to bring you back,” I say. I swallow the bile that climbs my throat. I can’t seem to get enough air in my breath as it grows shallow. “The FBI is coming for you. I wanted to bring you back for him.”

Caron taps my knee again with another swing. A desperate, aching sound erupts from my chest when my leg moves. The room swirls like I’m swimming in a raging sea.

“I don’t want to go back to some shitty, unimportant life with parents who always belittled my views and forced their religious manipulations on me, or a brother who never took my side. What would make you think I would want to reconnect with him? Eli never stood with me when I struggled with our parents or battled the demons that piled up around me. He barely even listened. He just let me slip away. Where was Eli when I hit rock bottom, hmm? Nowhere.”

“He was a child.”

So was I,” he says with another hit. I bite my split lip to keep from begging him to stop. “I was a child when they kicked me out of the house. I was a child when I overdosed in a friend’s decrepit apartment that smelled like piss and mold. I was a child when I rose above my circumstances, alone. I built my empire from nothing. And now I help people. I help so many people. And anyone who thinks otherwise is just holding me back from doing good in the world. Just like my family held me back. Just like they suffocated my vision of what a meaningful life could be.”

Caron knocks my knee again, harder this time. I scream as my leg grates against the one beneath it. The wet heat of blood soaks through my pants. Black spots creep through my vision and I know I can’t stay awake much longer. There’s no air in this wide-open room. I can’t claim any of it for my own.

“You’re doing so much…good in the world now…torturing me…aren’t you…” I whisper through panting breaths as he leans closer.

“Nothing less than what you deserve, serial killer.” Another knock, another scream. Tears crest my lashes and stream across my face. Caron sighs, his hands tightening around the handle of the hammer as he stands. “But you’re right. Best to get this over with.”

That’s when I hear it. The first siren. And then the distant, beating thrum of a helicopter.

“Do it…” I say. “You’ll only…rot in jail…forever…”

A flash of panicked rage ignites in Caron’s eyes. He strides a few steps toward the window, looking toward the moon as the sound of the helicopter grows louder. He and I both know there’s no running now. Not for either of us.

“All I have to do is tell them you’re a killer,” Caron says as he stalks toward me. “You murdered Nick and Tristan and Cynthia and God knows who else. You lured me to your building and I just managed to subdue you.”

I smile, my eyes full of malice. “Not…my building… It’s…yours…” I whisper, success warming the erratic beats of my heart as I jostle my bound wrists in his direction. “And your story…isn’t super…believable…all things…considered.”

Caron scowls down at me, his face lit with fury, his movements jerky and distressed. I just need to push a little harder, stay awake a little longer. “If I go down, I’m bringing you with me,” he grits out. “You’ll never walk free again.”

I know.

If he survives, he’ll ensure I go to prison too. He’ll pin those deaths and more on me. But if he kills me, he’ll never get out. His whole empire will crumble away.

He just needs to believe in the possibility he could fail.

“I’ve…made sure…that they’ll think…it’s you. Where…do you think…the bodies are? I’ll give you…a hint. They’re not at…my house.”

I let out a triumphant laugh as Caron’s furious, feral growl floods the empty space. It echoes up the walls. The pigeons flap above us and my scream follows their hidden wings as Caron hits my leg hard with the hammer.

And then I see the moment. The decision in his eyes.

Time slows down. Caron’s murderous glare is pinned to me like it’s hooked in my skin. His shoulders roll. He sweeps the sledgehammer behind him in an arc. I look away to the window and the silver moonlight, the blades of the helicopter rattling the weathered panes of glass. Then I close my eyes and think of my aviary, of the record player beneath the bows of the cherry tree, birds singing in the cover of the scented blooms.

I love you, Bria Brooks. 

A shot pierces the cool air and the world all falls away.


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