the debt collector (book 1 of a jack winchester organized crime action thriller) (jack winchester vigilante justice thriller series)

The Debt Collector
Jon Mills
Direct Response Publishing
Contents

Copyright

Synopsis

Also by Jon Mills

Dedication

Epigraph

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part 2

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Part 3

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Part 4

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

A Plea

Newsletter

Sneak Peak at Book 2

Chapter One

Jon Mills

Copyright © 2015 Jon Mills

A
ll rights reserved
. Direct Response Publishing. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be resold. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to an online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.

The Debt Collector is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Synopsis
The Debt Collector

J
ack Winchester was
a notorious hitman for a ruthless New Jersey crime family until a job went wrong, and he wound up serving time.

Four years later, Jack is free and he wants out of the game, but his boss won't let him go. Forced to take on one last job to make amends for what landed him in prison, he travels to the small town of Rockland Cove, Maine.

There, he not only discovers that the target and money have disappeared; he finds himself falling for a damaged woman, and befriending an unruly son left behind.

Under mounting pressure from his boss and local police—as well as the ghosts of his past—he must unravel the mystery and decide where his loyalties lie…before it's too late.

Also by Jon Mills

U
ndisclosed

Retribution

Clandestine

The Debt Collector

Debt Collector 2: Vengeance

The Promise

True Connection

Dark Tide (Detective Forrester and Woods Crime Thriller)

Debt Collector 3: Reborn (coming May 2016)

C
lick
here to receive special offers, bonus content, and news about Jon’s new books, sign up for the newsletter.

F
or my family

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Part I
Chapter 1

R
IKER’S PRISON WAS HELL
on an island. Jack paced back and forth in his cell for hours that morning. After four years, he felt more uncomfortable this day than he had when he first arrived.

The last year in and out of solitary confinement for fighting had only made it worse. Twenty-three hours holed up in a six by eight cell, surrounded by nothing more than cinder blocks, a bunk, a sink and a toilet; changed a man. It was known to break even the toughest, to push anyone to their mental limits and beyond. The men referred to it as “the box,” and even that didn’t quite describe the claustrophobic feeling you felt. The thought of never getting out haunted him daily.

Today was no different. There was always doubt eating away at the back of his mind. He’d seen men’s wills get thrown to the curb minutes before they saw the outside.

Now, however, as the familiar sound of steel toe boots striking against the steely catwalk approached his door, it brought a welcome relief. The twist of the key in the lock and the clanging of the metal flap had become a part of his daily routine.

This morning, though, was different. It would be the last time he would hear it. Between the small mesh window he saw two new prison guards. The faces changed frequently; not because of shift rotation, but because few lasted beyond a couple of months in this place. He turned his back, stuck his hands through the hole behind him, and felt the click of metal around his wrists. He winced, feeling the metal teeth pinch his skin.

“Inmate, take two steps forward.”

Led by the guards, Jack shuffled along the upper tier, greeted by the usual sounds of rage. Men and teens screamed obscenities, banging on the metal doors while others smeared their own feces through the mesh. It never let up, day or night. It was pure chaos. You just learned to block out the constant hollering.

They escorted him through a series of security doors, each one bringing home the reality that it was finally over. He was ushered into a small room where he could collect his belongings. He changed out of the prison garments and slipped back into his stonewashed jeans, black t-shirt, and leather jacket. While it felt good to have his belongings back, something was missing: sixteen bucks and twenty-five cents, to be precise. That’s exactly what he’d had on him when he’d entered. Conveniently enough, that was nowhere to be found now. He scoffed, knowing it had probably been used to buy the guards a case of beer.

Outside he squinted, his eyes adjusting to the brightness of the warm summer morning. He breathed in the deep salty air. Led up to the gates, he waited behind a thick yellow line as the aging steel cracked open. Cupping a hand over his eyes, the blinding orange rays of the sun blocked his view. It took him but a second to recognize the silhouette leaning up against a souped up Pinto: Freddy Carlone. He was one of Roy Gafino’s piss ants. They were cut from the same cloth and equally responsible for his incarceration.

“Jack.”

A cigarette hung out the corner of the man’s mouth. He spread his arms wide open. Ignoring him, Jack took a hard right, strolling past him. Freddy fell in step.

“No hug for an old buddy?”

Jack remained silent, forging forward.

“Jack?”

He heard the crunch of gravel as the Pinto crawled behind them.

“It’s a long walk back. Come on, let me give you a ride.”

He kept walking.

“Jack, c’mon, it’ll be like old times. I’ll buy you a drink. You can’t still be bitter after a few years?”

Jack stopped abruptly, spun around, and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. The Pinto came to a halt and Louis bolted out of the driver’s side. Freddy waved him off.

“Four years, thirteen days, seven hours, and thirty four minutes.”

There was a tense pause.

Freddy threw his hands up. “Okay, okay.”

Jack slowly released his grip on him.

“Look, Roy asked me to pick you up. He wants to see you.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“Yeah, well, you know how it works.”

Jack studied his face for a minute, cast a glance off in the direction he had been heading, and then reluctantly walked over to the car and got in. Inside, Louis leaned over, banging a carton of Camels in his hand.

“Cigarette?”

* * *

D
ana Grant’s
morning hadn’t gone exactly as planned. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair outside the principal’s office, she gazed down at her crumpled to-do list. Nowhere on it had she listed a visit to Rockland Cove High School. Until ten o’clock that morning, actually, she had been under the impression that her fourteen-year-old son was sitting comfortably at a desk in one of his classes. Now everything had to take a backseat. That included phone calls to get quotes for repairs on the motel, a long overdue return call to the deputy sheriff, and a chat with the animal hospital to arrange pick up of the ashes of their recently cremated dog.

She glanced at her reflection in the glass cabinet that contained numerous regional awards, smoothing a few loose strands of black hair back into place. That was another thing—she sorely needed to get her hair done. The thought lasted only seconds before moving to the reason she had been called in. Her needs came second to her son’s. She didn’t resent that fact, since it had been a rough year for them both. In many ways, it was to be expected.

“Dana.”

Susan Walsh, the principal of the school, came out of her office. The woman had known her since childhood. She was a sweet person, but she did have a tendency to highlight Dana’s flaws any chance she got. At least, that was the impression Dana got. They both had a keen interest in teaching, but Susan was the only one who had moved from dreaming to achievement. It was no fault of Dana’s; getting pregnant at eighteen and having no parents around to help had seriously slammed the brakes on her own pursuit. In many ways, after seeing how Susan had turned out, she was glad.

The need to keep up appearances, be politically correct with every parent—it didn’t exactly appeal to her. She was a woman who tended to speak her mind. She considered herself a free spirit. She valued all the things that Susan appeared to have lost when making the transition from teen to adult.

Growing up is what they called it; becoming mature and responsible. It was a badge she’d worn with honor, and in many ways she owned it, yet simmering under the surface was a free spirit longing to be released. She wanted to experience a life without restrictions, responsibilities—not to mention morning meetings with beady-eyed principals who looked down on her.

Susan swept her hand toward her office, as if ushering in a child who had zero directional skills. Dana pursed her lips and stepped inside.

“Please, take a seat.”

Dana sat squarely across from Susan, a mahogany desk between them. Various photo frames of Susan’s family were scattered across the room’s shelves and tables, and two children who reminded Dana of robots smiled with pearly white teeth back at her. As Susan observed her, she couldn’t help but feel as if her life was under inspection. An engraved nameplate sat in front of her—a simple reminder of Susan’s title in life, or a reminder of who she was? Either way, it niggled Dana. She had an urge to flip it around the other way, but undoubtedly Susan’s name was on the other side too so she could fluff her ego throughout the day like a vain person checking a mirror every chance they got.

“How are you, Dana?” Susan asked, in her most condescending voice.

“Fine.”

Susan scanned her face as if trying to spot a crack in what she had come to expect every mother wore: a mask. Satisfied or just eager to get down to business, she flipped her computer screen around.

“This is a list of the days your son has attended school. Do you see anything wrong with this?”

Other than your reflection in the screen?
Dana thought.

“Well, this can’t be right. I’ve dropped him off every day here.”

Susan twisted the screen back around, taking a deep breath. Dana knew she was readying the speech she had prepared to give her whole life. The one that brought Dana up to speed on how kids really acted, and how responsible parents, ones not running a run-down motel, should be. Susan opened her mouth, then closed it.

“What am I missing here, Susan?”

“It’s not what you’re missing. It’s what your son is. He has been absent for close to thirty days over the past year.”

Dana didn’t hesitate in responding to what she could tell was more of an accusation against her than against her son. “Well, why have you not informed me of this sooner?”

Susan reached into the drawer in front of her and retrieved a folded piece of paper. She slid it to Dana, raising her eyebrows in the process.

“It appears your son has been forging your signature.”

Dana’s brow knit together as she unfolded the paper. Sure enough, there was her signature, as clear as day. However, it wasn’t hers. It wasn’t bad, actually, but there was a slight difference in the letter G.

“I, of course, recognized the forgery the moment I saw it.”

Yes, I’m sure you did
. Dana rolled her eyes.

“You see, he’s not the first teen that has attempted to pull the wool over our eyes, but thankfully our small town keeps a close eye on those who happen to be lingering outside Tina’s restaurant, the library, or the marina during school hours. From there, I pulled one of your older letters.”

“You keep them?”

“Certainly. How else do you expect us to catch them?”

Quite the Agatha Christie, aren’t we?
Dana thought.

“Well, be assured I will be having words with him. I appreciate you letting me know.”

“Is there anything at home that might be of concern?”

“At home? If anything, this is more likely related to school.”

“Right.” She nodded slowly, as if unable to comprehend that any student would find Rockland High School anything less than a paradise. “Well, I was referring to the situation with his father.”

“That is our business.”

“But when it affects his schoolwork, it becomes ours.”

Dana stood. “I appreciate your concern, and this will be taken care of.”

“Please, Dana. If there is anything we can do to help—for now we’ll let this all slide.”

Susan stood, extending her hand. Dana glanced at it, hesitating before shaking it and leaving with what remained of her dignity.

Chapter 2

R
OY GAFINO headed
up one of five crime families that operated out of the New Jersey area. He ran a seedy but notorious boxing gym in Bergen County called The Pig’s Ear. This was where Jack had first met him, back when he was fourteen. The gym had become an escape from the constant beatings he received at home. His father never thought twice about laying into him. He typically didn’t need a reason, but when there was one—those were the memorable nights. Fists, leather belts, you name it. It didn’t matter to him; whatever was within reach was game.

His stepmother wasn’t any better. If she thought he took too long to complete a chore, she wouldn’t hesitate to swat him. It was never with her hand; she always used a broomstick or something similar. Hands were for loving, she would say. She’d once broken a broom handle over his back, an incident they’d found hard to cover up when he wasn’t in school for several weeks. Yeah, when she was conscious, she was just as much a lunatic as her husband.

Maybe that’s why he had been drawn to Gafino. There was sense of family in the gym. A brotherhood. While he knew the place had an unsavory reputation, he also knew that if you were in with them, no one would touch you. They looked out for each other; at least, that’s how it appeared. In the early days, Gafino had spotted Jack’s natural talent for boxing and took him under his wing. It wasn’t long before he was running errands for him, transporting packages to locations throughout New Jersey. Jack always had a good sense of what he was delivering, but he never questioned it. In their line of business, you didn’t ask questions. Questions led to complications and mistakes. Mistakes got you killed. That became even clearer at the age of eighteen, when Jack committed his first hit.

As they drove across the bridge between Riker’s and the borough of Queen’s, Jack gazed out at the East River; his mind was lost in memories of those early days.

“You want to make more money, Jack?” Gafino asked.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“If I told you to pull the trigger, could you do it?”

He shrugged. “I guess.”

“You guess, or you could without any question?”

“Yeah, I could.”

Those three words took him down a road that could have only led to one of two destinations: prison or a bullet in the back of the head. That day had replayed in his mind countless times over the past ten years. The whispers of old memories always found their way to the surface, like ugly faces that tormented his mind. It’s said that there is loyalty among thieves, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the twenty years he’d worked for Gafino, he’d seen friends turn on friends over a simple insult. Then you had those who were jealous and wanted to make a name for themselves by climbing the ladder. Others—well, they became snitches.

Jack knew the dangers of being associated with the Gafinos, and yet they were all he’d known for as long as he could remember. They had taken the place of his own family; they were the ones who had put clothes on his back, gave him a job, and looked out for him. Even after he had moved out of his parents’ place, they gave him a place to sleep. Doing time just came with the territory. Hell, it was rare to find anyone who hadn’t done time for one thing or another. Murder, assault, drug dealing, arson—you name it, there was nothing that was beyond their means. Most knew that; once out of prison they would go right back to doing what they had without batting an eye. It was all they knew.

For Jack, however, it was different this time. A short stint in a cell was one thing, but being locked up for more than four years was another. Surrounded by cement and bars had given him time to think about his life. He wasn’t getting any younger, and he was in a business that ran on fear, intimidation, and mistrust. He knew it would only be a matter of time before he’d find himself wrapped in bags, a bullet in his skull, or sinking to the bottom of the Hudson River with his feet in cement. He was surprised he’d lasted this long.

Jack hadn’t spoken to any of them since being locked up, and the thought of renewing his friendship with them again wasn’t in the cards. Thinking about going his separate way had once been out of the question, but now it was the only thing he’d been sure about in a long time. It wasn’t as if they had visited him while he was inside. Wasn’t that what family was supposed to do? He shook his head.

He hadn’t seen it when he was young. His pride, naivety, and drive to make a name for himself had got the better of him. He’d risen through the ranks quickly. His methods were unorthodox, but they worked. There was never any room for error, no room for emotion. That’s why they sent him in. When it was time to do a job, it was like flipping a switch. He had no rules, except one: no women or kids. But it was obvious that as long as you were of use to them they would walk over coals for you. But at the slight chance you ceased to line their wallets or deliver, well…

Jack shot Freddy and Louis a quick glance before returning to watch the stream of traffic. He would keep his visit brief. He’d listen to what Roy had to say and then be on his way. Where he’d go from there didn’t matter. He’d figure that out later.

* * *

D
ana stared blankly
at the middle-aged couple yelling at her. They hadn’t been the first, and undoubtedly they wouldn’t be the last. But as they reeled off every reason why their motel room was below human standards, she once again found herself recollecting better days. Months where rooms were full and she’d had to switch on the
No Vacancy
light
.
Of course, that had been long before the bypass was built, and…
She zoned back in momentarily to swipe their card and refund their money.

Over the past year since the incident with Jason’s father, Dana had somehow found a way to begin picking up the pieces. It hadn’t been easy, and at times it felt as if she had crawled her way back to existence. If it hadn’t been for Jason, she wasn’t sure what she might have done. Summoning the energy to face each day felt more difficult than giving up. Even though her thinking was selfish, she understood how depression could drive a person to self-harm—or worse, take their life. While she hadn’t reached that point, she had come dangerously close to the edge of the abyss. That was, of course, until she realized the implications of what she was thinking.

In the early days after the incident, she’d received phone calls daily for weeks. She’d wondered what they wanted to hear. Most of her friends meant well, and they tried to help her see the light at the end of the tunnel, so it wasn’t as if she didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. It was just that she had nothing to say. She felt numb, removed from the situation, dead inside as if somehow viewing herself from the outside. These weren’t the kind of things you shared over coffee, in passing conversation, or even with a doctor—unless you wanted them to place you under observation. Instead, she told them what she assumed they wanted to hear. That while it was hard she was coping with meds her doctor had prescribed.

Yet in all honesty, she’d only taken the pills for a short while. They fogged up her mind, made her sleep the day away, and put her in a catatonic state. How could anyone return to living again under those conditions? She knew that if she let herself spiral down any further, continue taking the meds, there was no way of knowing if she would find her way back. So she quit taking them. The first couple of months, she hadn’t stepped out of the house other than to drive Jason to school and collect a few groceries. Those days were the hardest. She felt the eyes of people on her as she pushed a cart around the local SuperMart; she heard the whispers and had a good idea of what people were saying.

Find the silver lining in every dark moment; her father would say that when she was little. She’d never forgotten it, or them, for that matter. God, how she missed her mother and father. Born and raised in Rockland Cove, they had been her strength throughout her life. A listening ear when things had fallen through with college, a pick-me-up when her heart was broken for the first time, and a lifesaver that saw her through an unexpected pregnancy.

She groaned inwardly. So much had changed over the years.

“You have a good day,” she said, leaning on the office counter and watching the couple head off to the modern lodge in town.

If it hadn’t been for the run of good years that they’d had, she wouldn’t have been able to keep the place afloat. Goodwill, cooked meals from neighbors, and an ever-declining bank account balance only stretched so far. The truth was, their financial difficulties had started long before that fateful night.

Chapter 3

P
ulling
up around the back of The Pig’s Ear, Jack noted how little had changed. It was a six-story brick building, with two fire escapes and underground tunnels that led away to other parts of the city. Like always, there were a few teens loitering around outside, and a couple of Gafino’s men kept an eye out for police. At one time the building had been a respectable hotel, until Gafino muscled his way in and set up shop. Now it drew in a different kind of clientele.

The smell of sweat and testosterone hung in the air inside. The sounds of men sparring brought back a flood of fond memories and a pang inside his gut. Unlike the first day he walked in, this place was now the last place he wanted to be. Freddy grinned, jabbing his finger at individuals, shouting names as if he was doing a roll call. Hardened men scrutinized him. It was a mix of new and old faces; guys he’d had drinks with in the past, and those he’d never seen before.

Jack followed Freddy into the back, through a series of doors, and up a steel staircase. Every room he passed reminded him of the man he had once been. Was he different? Could four years really change who you were?

Entering Roy’s office, they were greeted by the sight of a pale white ass and a brunette bent over his desk.

“How many fucking times do I have to tell you to knock?”

“Shit, sorry, boss.”

Roy twisted around and gave them a look of disapproval before making eye contact with Jack. His face immediately lit up. A huge smile appeared.

He slapped the girl on the ass. She pulled her panties up and readjusted her dress before slipping past them, her face red with embarrassment. Roy fumbled with the belt buckle on his pants before approaching them.

“She looks a lot like Theresa, don’t you think?”

Jack never replied. Theresa was the girl he’d been with before he had been locked up. Roy had taken a liking to her; some even said he was screwing her on the side. Jack didn’t ask; he knew better.

“It’s been a long time.” He wrapped his arms around Jack.

“Yeah,” Jack replied, his composure stoic.

“Freddy, pour the man a drink. This is cause for celebration.”

Freddy hustled over to an oak cabinet and retrieved a bottle of malt whiskey. After pouring a couple of glasses, he handed one to Jack.

“So, four years behind bars. It’s been a long time since I last served. Do the inmates still make their own alcohol? What was it made of again?”

“Tomatoes—” Jack began.

“Sugar and yeast. That’s right. Foul-tasting stuff, but I guess you can’t be picky.”

Jack felt the warm burn of the liquid as it slipped down his throat. For a moment he felt his muscles unwind. The reality that he was out was beginning to set in, but so was the thought of telling Roy that it was over.

“Come, take a seat.”

“I’ll stand.”

Roy must have caught something in his reply. It was rare for anyone to do anything but what he said, even in what some might have taken as a simple suggestion.

“Take a seat.” It was no longer a request.

Jack glanced at Freddy and Louis, who stood by the door. He breathed in deeply, placed his glass down, and took a seat. Roy slipped behind the desk and leaned back in the leather chair as if he was the king of New York. To those who knew him, he was. His rise to becoming a made man had not come without a fair amount of blood being spilled.

“Now that you’re out, we can get back to business. I’ve got you set up with a new place. Tony took yours after you went in.”

“That’s the thing.”

He was about to continue when there was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

“He’s downstairs.” A well-built man dressed in a suit shot Jack a look.

“Jack, Vincent. He’s been filling your shoes while you were inside.”

A look of animosity appeared on Vincent’s face.

“As I was saying…” Jack continued, turning back to Gafino.

Roy stood up. “Hold that thought and follow me.”

Reluctantly, Jack followed his entourage down the hallway and several flights of steps until he was in a dank basement.

He knew what this place was about.

Boxers didn’t come down here. Few people ever saw the underground; that even included some of Roy’s closest men. There were few reasons to be down here. Lights faintly lit the stone corridor. It smelled musty and damp. The tunnels had been built back in the 20s when prohibition was active. What had been a simple means of transferring alcohol and remaining undetected had become a new way to bring in drugs and cart out bodies. The granite stone made the area soundproof, and with the noise of the gym and streets above, few ever heard the final cries of those pleading for their lives.

Behind a locked wooden door, a man sat in a chair. He wore nothing more than a shirt and underpants. The room was empty, the floor stained red with large droplets of blood. He looked as if he had already taken a hard beating. His shirt was pulled back and there were several slashes across his chest. A bloodied rag carved deep into the skin around his mouth. His head hung low. The smell of piss lingered.

Gafino nodded to one of his men.

A man took a bucket of water and threw it over him. The man awoke, gasping and wild-eyed. Upon seeing Roy, he mumbled.

“Take the rag out.”

The moment it was pulled, the pleading began. He was a blubbering mess. Between the tears and blood in his mouth, they could barely make out a word of what he said. Jack studied his swollen face, trying to place where he’d seen him before.

“Nicky, Nicky. How long have I known you?”

Little Nicky Civella. That was it. He’d been one of the kids in the neighborhood. Good kid. Crafty thief—maybe a little too good. If there was anything that needed to be taken without anyone knowing, he was the guy they called in. He was in and out without issue. Now what the fuck was he doing in this situation?

“Nicky. You know you’ve cost me a lot.”

Gafino paced back and forth, as if preparing for a big speech.

“I can…” Nicky spluttered.

“You can what? Make it up to me? Last time I checked, you didn’t have thirty thousand dollars stashed away. Or, maybe, you do? Maybe you still have some of the money that you were meant to bring back to me.”

“I didn’t do it, Roy. I swear.”

“That’s not what I heard.” Roy cast a glance at Vincent.

Who was this Vincent? This was a guy Jack hadn’t seen before incarceration. Then again, Gafino had a lot of people working for him in the city. His face looked as if it had been chiseled from granite. His knuckles tattooed with the word TRIG.

“This is your last chance. What did you do with it?”

Jack could feel his stomach churn. It had been a long time since he’d been in this position. Fights, blood—these were an everyday part of his time behind bars. Fighting to survive was all he’d done for the last four years. This was different. A man unable to fight back; it was common in this world, but not in the one he had just left.

“I told him.” The man gestured to Vincent.

Roy tipped his head back, closing his eyes. Jack had seen this movement before. Roy held out his hand. Vincent pulled a white cloth from the inside of his jacket and handed it to Roy. Roy’s eyes opened and he unfolded it. Inside was a hammer.

“Please, Roy, I’ve got kids. I didn’t do it.”

When a person was about to die, they gave any excuse to live. Family, friends, lovers, money—it was all the same, and pleading for mercy was like grasping at the wind. Mercy didn’t exist in this world.

“Shh…” Roy whispered, placing a finger to his lips. “I’m not gonna kill you...immediately.”

In one swift motion, he brought the hammer down on Nicky’s right knee. Once, twice, and then a third time. The sounds of cracking bone mixed with screams wasn’t foreign to Jack. He’d heard it many, many times. But this time it affected him. This time, he diverted his gaze. He felt his stomach twist inside and his pulse began to race.

Freddy chuckled, patting him on the arm. “Like old times, eh, Jack?”

Roy handed the bloodied hammer back to Vincent, and proceeded to wipe a splatter of blood from his face and hands. Nicky’s eyes were bloodshot, his face a mess of snot, blood, and tears.

“Let’s go.”

As they left, Roy hollered back to Nicky. “When I return, I expect you to have a different answer.”

The sound of cries dissipated. Back upstairs, they resumed their places in the office as if nothing had taken place. Torture, mayhem, and death were routine. Most would faint, piss their pants, or end up in a psych ward if they saw what went down on a day-to-day basis. But to these men it was no different than popping the cork on a bottle of wine.

“So where were we? Oh yes, you were saying…” Roy began.

Telling him that he was planning on walking away from it all had now become even more difficult. After witnessing what they just had, few men would have had the balls to say anything, but few men hadn’t been through what Jack had in the past four years.

“I’m taking a break,” was how it came out.

Roy arched a brow. “Of course, what, Miami? Bermuda. Wherever you want to go. You’ve earned it. We’ll get back to business once you return.” Roy used a cigar cutter to slice the head off a Cohiba. “In fact, here…”

Roy reached into his drawer and tossed him a brick of money. Jack glanced at it, running his thumb over the end. There had to have been several thousand in hundred dollar bills, each one clean and crisp.

“You’ve earned it.”

He paused a moment. “No, I mean permanently.”

His eyes lifted slowly, and they both exchanged a cold glance. It was if someone had turned down the temperature in the room.

Roy scratched at his face and wiped the remainder of a blood splatter from his neck, before bursting into laughter. The others joined in.

“What a guy.”

“I’m serious, Roy.”

His face went from smiling to sour. “Don’t fuck around, Jack. I’ve got work for you to do.”

“Listen, I don’t mean for this to come out wrong. But I’m done, Roy.”

He stared intently at Jack, as if trying to decode some cryptic message.

“What, we’re not good enough for you? You find God or something in that prison?”

“I had a lot of time to think about my future. I need a change.”

Roy chuckled to himself. Ambling over to the cabinet, he poured himself another drink.

“Change.” He shook his head in amusement. “What do you think you’re going to do? Become a lawyer? Doctor? Oh, hold on a moment, I got it. You’re thinking of joining the monastery.”

Jack sat silently.

“You’re a killer, Jack, plain and simple. There’s no changing that.”

“Maybe. Perhaps. But I need to find that out for myself, and I’m not going to find it here. All I’ve ever known is this place.”

“So that’s it? You just gonna walk?”

“Look, I appreciate all you’ve done.”

“Yes, what I did. Who pulled you out of that shithole of a home? Who put clothes on your back, food in your stomach, gave you a roof over your head? Hey. Who did all that and more? And this is how you repay me?”

“Repay?”

His eyes flared. “You owe me.”

“I owe you? I think I’ve more than paid off anything I owed you sitting in that cell. I could have ratted, but I didn’t. Let’s not forget why I was there.”

Roy threw his glass across the room. It smashed, sending shards all over the floor.

“Are you blaming me? Are you?” Roy pointed at him. “I should fuckin—“

“Boss, we’ve got company,” Vincent said, poking his head into the room.

He nodded, squinting as he held his gaze on Jack. “We’ll continue this later.”

“I’m not gonna be here later.” Jack rose to his feet.

Roy scowled, adjusted his tie, and stormed out. Jack caught him mumbling to Vincent, asking him how he looked, before they disappeared around the corner.

Jack headed for the door.

“Where you going?” Freddy asked.

“Does it matter?”

Freddy cocked his head to one side.

“To collect my belongings.”

Chapter 4

F
REDDY GAVE HIM A RIDE
to a quiet suburb ten minutes away. Apartments in the city were for those who distributed narcotics on the streets. Roy never skimped on looking after his own. Homes in quiet neighborhoods were paramount for keeping his entire operation low key. The only reason he had managed to fly under the radar for so long with the FBI was because he paid for everything in cash, kept business and home life separate, and routinely moved his guys around from house to house. Every six months it was like fucking musical chairs. The only person he didn’t move was Jack. Jack was never quite sure why. The FBI was the least of his concerns; being bugged and taped by Roy was.

There had been a few instances in the past where he’d found surveillance cameras; one in the radio, the other in a smoke detector. Roy never admitted to it, but rumors had spread among the guys since Harvey, one of Roy’s closest confidants, had been snapped talking with police. Roy was on edge, and his whole operation was like a stack of cards, just waiting to be blown down. The thought of staring down a life sentence wasn’t appealing, even if Gafino had given him everything he needed.

“Jack Fucking Winchester.” Tony rose to his feet with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The noise of the New York Yankees playing on the television was already grinding on Jack’s nerves. He’d always had a quiet home. It was his sanctuary away from the chaos of the job, one place where he could retreat and feel sane. He glanced around at what remained of his home. A woman in dirty underwear lay unconscious on the couch. Tracks lined her arms.

Tony glanced over at Freddy. “Didn’t you tell him?”

“Where’s my stuff?”

“It’s all boxed up in the basement. Carver had meant to take them over to the new place last weekend.”

Jack proceeded down the staircase.

“Hey, you can’t go down there.”

“Listen, Jack, you can’t have this place,” Freddy said, following close behind.

In the basement a stack of various-sized brown boxes were squeezed into a corner of the room. Jack began routing through them, discarding some of them to the side and tossing handfuls of clothing in a pile.

“Careful, Jack, there’s C-4 material in a few of those.”

He paused for a moment.

“What?” he said slowly.

“We had to use it recently.”

“For what? A bank heist?”

Frank shrugged, face flashing with a look of reluctance to disclose the details.

Jack shook his head. “Actually, I don’t even want to know.”

“Anyway, what’s left is enough to blow up a small army.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you should think about keeping it away from my shit.”

He tossed one of the open boxes full of plastic explosive blocks near Freddie’s feet, knowing full well that without a detonator it wouldn’t explode. However, the look of horror on Freddie’s face made it obvious that it wasn’t clear to him. Jack chuckled to himself. The truth was that you could fire a gun at it or drop it on a hard surface and the box wouldn’t go off. It needed extreme heat and a shockwave. Something that only a detonator could provide. And those were always stored in a separate box.

There had only been a very few times Jack had used C-4 in the past. Gafino obtained it from a local demolition crew in the area. There was very little he couldn’t get his hands on.

Slowly reaching down into another box, he retrieved a photo frame. He stared at it, wiping the glass surface with the sleeve of his jacket. He was much younger in the photo. It reminded him of a time when his innocence was still intact. Beside him, an older beautiful brunette with emerald eyes clung to his arm.

As he became aware of Freddy closing the gap between them, he slipped the frame under a pair of jeans and placed it with the rest of his belongings. Gathering it all up, he stuffed the remainder of his things into a green army duffel bag and walked back upstairs.

“Where’re the keys?”

“It’s not yours anymore; I use it,” Tony replied.

Jack squeezed his eyes closed, a band of pressure forming around his skull.

“The keys,” Jack repeated, his arm outstretched.

Tony shook his head; he knew better not to argue with him. He ambled back into the kitchen and then tossed them at his feet. Jack scooped them up. Heading out back, Tony followed continuing his verbal diarrhea.

“You know, Jack, you always thought you were hot shit. Well things have changed. You ain’t shit now. You’re not in charge, Vincent is. You are on the bottom rung, my friend, and…”

Jack paid no attention to his asinine rambling as he approached a separate garage. He pulled at a handle and the rusted metal creaked up, light flooding into the double space. There was his baby: a black, 1967 Chevy Impala, V-8 with hardtop. It was one of the first things he’d bought. It was his pride and joy. He scanned the surface from front to back, looking for any damage. He’d seen the way Tony “The Lunatic” Marlon lived his life. His lack of attention to detail, inability for showing mercy, or consideration for anything had earned him his name. To think he’d had his grimy hands all over his property was disconcerting, to say the least.

Satisfied that it was still in one piece, Jack tossed his duffel bag onto the leather passenger seat before sliding behind the wheel. Turning over the key, the engine came to life with a loud roar. Easing the car outside, he let it idle while he got out to close the garage. Turning back toward the car, he let out two short whistles. When there was no response, he did it again.

“Where’s Apollo?”

“The hairball?” Tony asked, chugging back on his beer.

Jack glared at him.

“Alright, he’s at the local pound, probably euthanized by now. Yeah, fucking animal protection showed up here a few weeks after you went inside.”

Tony glanced at the neighbor’s house. A woman peeked out from behind the curtains. Tony tossed his beer in their direction. Glass smashed. Beer drained out, leaving a small puddle on the asphalt.

“Yeah, you better fucking stay inside.”

“Animal protection?”

“Yeah, your dog wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Kept barking all the goddam time.”

Jack closed the door on his car. Tony, full of liquid courage, squared up to him and then pulled back his shirt to show a wrist that was chewed up. His skin was leathered with scars and looked nasty.

“He’s lucky I didn’t put a fucking bullet in his head, for doing this.”

Jack glanced at Freddy, who knew all too well what Apollo had meant to Jack.

“Now, Jack. Let’s keep—” Freddie said, stepping forward.

Jack began to chuckle under his breath and patted Tony on the shoulder.

“Nothing worse than someone who just won’t shut the fuck up, huh, Tony? Oh no. I hear you man.”

Tony’s shoulders relaxed, assuming Jack was cool with it. Dropping his guard gave Jack more than enough time to deliver what came next. Snarling, he delivered two sharp blows to the man’s nose with the palm of his hand. His nose burst like a fire hydrant. As Tony collapsed to his knees, groaning in agony and choking on his blood, Jack shot Freddy a look. His face made it clear that if Freddy was smart, he wouldn’t intervene. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to do anything, Jack returned to his car. Tony screamed at him, his hands cupping his bloodied face.

“What the fu—what the fuck?” Tony stumbled over his words.

He spat crimson red, while an excessive amount of blood dripped from his face.

“You’re lucky I didn’t put a bullet in your head,” Jack replied before sliding behind the wheel and driving away.

Chapter 5

T
HE LOCAL POUND
was a twenty-minute drive. Jack had got Apollo when he was a pup. A Siberian husky, his eyes were a pale blue, his coat black and white. He’d been the only constant thing in Jack’s life over the years. While women came and went, friends were buried or locked up, his dog gave him something no one else could: fierce loyalty. That dog had taught him more about loyalty than fifteen years with Gafino ever had. The real kind came with no strings attached. He knew that dog would have taken a bullet for him. There was rarely a moment of the day that went by that he hadn’t had him at his side. Heading to the pound, he knew it was a shot in the dark as to whether his friend was still alive. Years had passed. Dogs didn’t last long in shelters, with the continual influx, and few people were willing to take on an older dog. The odds were stacked against him.

The sounds of barking and the steel fencing reminded him of the prison. Every day was chaos. Men acted like caged animals. Few would ever understand what life was like on the inside. It wasn’t just the danger that threatened you every waking hour. It was the routine that could break a man. You slept, ate, and took a shit when they said. Human rights activists would have had a heyday if they really saw what went on behind those gates.

If the general population didn’t drive you insane, being thrown in solitary confinement would. Men slashed their skin, overflowed toilets, and shoved their own feces under the steel doors. Rage at the warden was common, suicide even more so. There was a reason why men didn’t act civilized when they got out. Heck, animals in shelters were treated better.

Inside the building, a gray-haired lady wearing blue scrubs manned the front desk.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, four years ago a male Siberian Husky was brought in here. He’s black and white with pale blue eyes.”

“Four years ago? Likelihood of the dog being here is slim. I don’t recall us having one, but this is just my second day on the job.”

She glanced at the black tattoo of a reaper on his arm, arched an eyebrow, and tapped her keyboard.

“Do you recall why he would have been brought in?”

“Abuse.” The very thought made him want to go back and finish Tony off.

The lady scrutinized him, and her demeanor changed from warm to cold instantly, as if assuming that he’d be responsible. A few more taps on the keyboard and she shook her head.

“Doesn’t appear to be any record.”

“Can I take a look around?”

“There is no husky on site.”

“Well would you have an idea if someone adopted the dog?”

“If we have that information, it’s private.”

He nodded. She scrutinized him. This was going nowhere fast. He tapped the desk and was about to exit when someone else spoke from behind.

“Black and white with pale blue eyes, you say?”

Jack turned to see a worker bringing in a muzzled Rottweiler from a side door.

“Yeah.”

“I remember the dog. Was in a state when I brought it in. They had to perform surgery. That guy really did a number on that poor thing.”

Jack clenched his jaw. The man handed the dog to another assistant.

“I believe Sandra took him in.”

A wave of relief flooded his being.

“Who?”

“Sandra. She works here. She brings him on her shifts. She’ll be in at seven o’clock, if you want to swing by.”

Jack nodded. “I’ll do that.”

Chapter 6

A
FEW MINUTES
LATER he was on the road, and a half hour after that he was in the parking lot of the East Star Behavioral Treatment Center. Inside, he was directed to the family common area. With only fifteen other people in the room, it was filled to capacity. Barred windows let in warm bands of summer light. At the far side of the room, staring out a pane of glass, a girl with straight blonde hair that reached to the lower part of her back stood, motionless. Even has he approached, she didn’t move a muscle.

“Hey, sis,” he said, glancing at her before following her gaze to the courtyard below. A flock of birds broke in the trees. Orderlies clothed in all white assisted disoriented patients around them.

She never replied. He looked at the lines on the inside of her arms. There was more than what he remembered. Surveying the room, he noted how decayed everything was. The place couldn’t have been updated for more than thirty years. The sound of chatter blended with clanking water pipes. Paint peeled from the walls and some of the ceiling tiles bore the signs of dried water stains. Whether it was private or state assisted living for the mentally challenged, they charged outrageous amounts—but for what? The place was a shithole and in desperate need of a complete overhaul.

He hated the fact that his sister was here. If he thought she could cope, he would have pulled her out by now. The reality was, though, that he wasn’t in a place to look after her. Despite all its flaws, at least here she could receive the treatment she needed. He’d thought of getting her transferred to a better facility, but it had been a long time since he’d had money to throw around.

Jack spent the next hour sitting quietly with her. Though he knew she wasn’t tuned into reality, he spoke to her as if she was. He believed that one day she would recover, snap out of it, or at least remember who he was. It was a thin sliver of hope, but he clung to it.

* * *

L
eaving
the facility was always difficult. Time with his sister only reminded him of the horrors of his youth, but he was all she had. Returning to his car, he saw Gafino waiting for him. A black Lexus was parked beside his. Vincent leaned against the hood of the car, a look of defiance on his face. Drawing closer, the rear-tinted window slid half way down.

“Get in, Jack,” Gafino said.

He didn’t hesitate. Wisdom told him otherwise. Inside it was like entering a gas chamber. Gafino’s cigar filled the pocket of air with thick, pungent smoke.

“Was busting up Tony’s nose really necessary?”

“He got off lightly.”

Gafino tapped ash into a tray in front of him. “You remember that kid, Mickey Weatherstone? The kid you knocked out in the first round.”

“Long time ago, but yeah.”

“What was that? Under two minutes?”

“Sixteen seconds.”

Gafino coughed while laughing. “Yeah. First fight. That’s when I knew you had something, Jack. I’d seen a lot kids step in that ring, but they didn’t have that…” He searched for the words. “That killer instinct you had. You were hungry.”

“Angry, you mean?”

“Hungry, angry. It’s all the same. You didn’t care what the odds were, or who we threw in the ring with you. They were just one more obstacle standing in your way.”

“What do you want, Roy?”

Gafino stared at him studying his face.

“What’s going on with you, Jack? Look at you. You look like death warmed up.”

Jack diverted his gaze away from Gafino. His eyes turned to Vincent, who was looking off toward the facility.

“What happened inside?” Gafino continued.

“You know there’s not much to do inside except think, Roy,” he said, pausing to reflect on the past. “Everything. It all plays back. The faces, the names, the blood.”

Gafino took a deep breath. “We did what was necessary.”

“Maybe. But I’m the one that has had to live with that. And it’s all I see.”

For a moment they sat in silence.

“Did you get your dog back?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Talking about work—I’ve given some thought to what you said. I may not understand why, but I can respect your decision; so this is what’s going to happen. You are going to do one last job for me.”

“I said…” Jack muttered.

“I know what you fucking said,” Gafino stared at him, raising his voice. “And this is what I’m saying. You are going to do one last job. Once that’s out of the way, you can do whatever the hell you like.”

“Roy, I can’t.”

Roy turned, and in an instant slammed Jack’s face against the window.

“You know how much you owe me? I’ve killed people for less. You screwed up, Jack, and now you are going to clean up your mess. Are we clear?”

Jack motioned ever so slightly.

Roy released his grip on his skull, then readjusted the collar of Jack’s jacket as if he was a parent preparing to send a kid out to school for the first time. The guy was like Jekyll and Hyde. Nice one minute and liable to end your life the next.

“How’s your sister?”

And like that, he was back to acting as if nothing had happened.

“Same.”

Roy nodded, blowing out a puff of smoke. “Vincent will give you the details. Go. Get out.”

Jack got out. Vincent handed him a folder, offering a smirk at the same time.

“And if things go sour?”

Through the partially open window Roy replied, “Well, they don’t call you ‘The Butcher’ for nothing, now do they?” Roy narrowed his eyes. “No loose ends this time.”

Jack nodded.

“Oh, and Jack, in case you have second thoughts. Maybe one of us will pay your sister a visit next time.”

Jack scowled as the window slid up, and the car crawled away.

Four years had changed a lot between them, or maybe not. Maybe only now could he see that he was nothing more than a pawn in a game, an expendable commodity that existed only to meet the current needs of ruthless men.