Excerpt: Worth Killing For
Angel Perez cursed himself for the stupid-ass Run-DMC T-shirt he was wearing. Angel had ultimately caved to his pregnant girlfriend Sophie’s insistence that the shirt would make him stand out in the crowd of the other day laborers, the sorry lot of them hanging around the Dearborn Home Depot like a bunch of male prostitutes in hopes of getting scooped up by a contractor looking to assemble a work crew for the day.
Five forty-five am. Angel squinted toward the front sliding glass doors of the store to see the first flickers of light come on and prayed he could maybe earn a hundred bucks for eight-to-twelve hours of sheer unadulterated, dirty grunt work. Hammer, drywall, swig of Mountain Dew, take a piss, repeat.
A small trickle of wet slipped down the center of Angel’s back, the first sweat of the morning, making his T-shirt stick to his skin like Velcro. Angel knew this kind of predawn summer heat meant one thing: by ten am it would be a full-fledged swamp-ass kind of day, a phrase his dad used to use when the two of them were safely out of earshot from Angel’s mom, as father and son had worked to replace the worn roof of their house seven years earlier.
Angel scanned the nearly empty parking lot a second time for any possible contractors he could approach and remembered how his dad had taught him the essential home DIY repair skills as a young teen as the two had worked to fix up their own place before his father started drinking and his childhood home was still theirs before the bank took it. The experience had left Angel with shadowy, happy memories of his dad and a pretty decent residual skill of being handy when he had to be.
“Son of a bitch,” Angel said as the off-ramp continued to come up empty with cars. Angel closed his eyes and made a silent promise to himself that he wouldn’t have to resort to bullshit manual labor jobs much longer.
A low rumble of hunger echoed through his empty belly, and Angel wondered how he and Sophie would make it through the rest of the week if he didn’t get work today. The rent on their studio apartment was paid up through the month, and there was still a bottle of milk and some cold cuts and fruit he had left in the fridge for his girl, but they needed the extra money to pay out of pocket for Sophie’s twelve-week pregnancy appointment with her doctor. They were close, man, so close. That’s what Angel had gently whispered to a half-awake Sophie, who was curled up on their twin-sized mattress that lay on the floor. Angel realized he needed the positive reminder just as much as his girl did. Three more courses at Henry Ford Community College and then he’d have a job with his uncle Edgar in City Hall after he graduated with a degree in website design. His uncle Edgar was a tough man. No degree, no special favors including connecting Angel with a decent job until he earned his diploma.
“Nice shirt, dude.”
Angel turned quickly to see the only other chump who had gotten to Home Depot before it opened. Angel took in the guy with the mouth and figured he was probably early thirties, tall and built, not from the gym but by an honest day’s work, the kind of guy a contractor would pick first for a job instead of someone who was short and wiry, like himself. Angel turned back around and cursed under his breath as he saw a pickup truck with the name Dennis Cole Construction, emblazed in red on the driver-side door, the first likely job of the day already lost to Mr. Wiseass. Angel almost felt relieved when the truck didn’t approach, but instead parked on the far end of the lot, the driver killing his lights while he waited for the store to open at six.
“The guy’s probably already got his team in place. Hey, I was only playing with you about your shirt, bro.”
“My girl told me to wear it. She’s pregnant. I’ve got to do what she says.”
“I hear that. You were here last Tuesday, right? You were still hanging around when a bunch of us got picked up for a crew — real sweet work, too — Monday through Friday, bro, tearing down ceilings in an old warehouse in the city. All kinds of shit came flying down when we tore it up. Probably asbestos and other crap that will kill you. But we do what we gotta do to make money. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“I got work last week, too,” Angel said, not bothering to shield the defensiveness in his voice. Besides, it wasn’t a lie. A contractor had finally picked Angel, but he surely wasn’t going to share with Mr. Asshole Bigmouth that it was because the only other guy still standing had a gut on him that looked like his diet consisted of a steady intake of Ho Hos and Budweiser.
“Tell you what, bro. It’s dead right now. I got a thermos of coffee in my car. You want some?”
Angel tried not to look at the off-ramp and tip his hand as he saw a white van coming off the highway and heading in their direction.
“Yeah, sure. That would be great.”
“Good. I’m Jose. No hard feelings about the shirt, right?”
“We got no beef. Better go get that coffee before it gets cold,” Angel said, and let out a deep exhale as Jose turned his back and headed to a parking area on the other side of the store just as the white van entered the lot. It slowed down for a second in front of the store, and then continued on until the vehicle came to a stop alongside Angel.
The passenger-side window cranked open, and Angel took in the contractor, a giant man with a long black braid that trailed down his back and the still-angry pink flesh that looked like it never quite healed from a deep scar cut in the shape of a crescent that started at the corner of the contractor’s left eye and descended down in a jagged hook until it ended at the man’s jawline. The contractor smiled, showing off a set of gleaming white teeth against his olive skin, and Angel figured the man about to hire him must be Native American.
“You looking for work?” the big man asked. “I got a roofing job in downtown Detroit in the Lafayette neighborhood. Two days minimum. I just need one more guy for my crew. We start bright and early at seven. I don’t tolerate slackers, but you being here before the store even opens, that gives me a real good feeling about you, even though you’re a little dude. You up for the job?”
“I’m a hard worker,” Angel said, really wanting to tell the contractor to go screw himself for the comment about his size. “What’s the pay?”
“One hundred for the full day. We work until five. One half-hour break. It looks like you didn’t bring your lunch. Don’t be expecting me to feed you. If I like how you work, you can come back tomorrow, and I’ll give you one twenty-five.”
“Deal,” Angel said, and climbed into the passenger seat just as Jose came around the corner with his thermos and two paper cups. The big contractor hit the gas and Angel didn’t bother to suppress a smile as Jose shot him the finger as the van passed him.
“Friend of yours?” the man asked. He reached into his worn denim shirt breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette.
“No. The guy seemed like a douche. Hey, your van’s empty. You got all your supplies at the work site already?”
The contractor stuck the tan tip of a Camel cigarette between his thick, dry lips and gestured toward the glove compartment. “Yup. Started the job yesterday. Do me a favor. Reach in there and grab my lighter.”
Angel bent down far in his seat and worked for a good minute to pop the sticky glove compartment and felt a bead of sweat form on his brow as he realized the contractor was likely judging his shitty performance.
“Got it,” Angel cried with a note of triumph in his voice, which he realized sounded lame as soon as it came out of his mouth. Angel shoved his hand quickly inside the glove compartment to retrieve the lighter, and in his haste to please his temporary boss, accidentally knocked a white envelope to the floor. A half-dozen photographs spilled out, obscene stills of what looked like young men and teenage boys posed against a tree, their eyes fixed with the look of coming death. In each photo, the shaft of an arrow jutted out from the young men’s chests in what looked like the precise same spot.
“You saw,” the man said.
“No … I didn’t see anything. I swear,” Angel answered, trying as hard as he could to sound like everything was perfectly normal. But Angel’s voice cracked on his last word, betraying his realization that he was trapped in a car with a likely monster that kept a cache of macabre souvenirs of his gruesome handiwork. Angel’s eyes darted to the passenger-side window where he watched the road underneath him blur as his mind scrambled to come up with an escape plan. Angel could hear the big Indian begin to chant in a strange language and realized his only hope of survival would be to jump out of the moving vehicle. Angel slid his hand toward the right front pocket of his jeans for his keys, his only possible weapon, when the big Indian spoke again, his deep voice sounding like a potent, heavy thundercloud closing in.
“Doesn’t matter if you did or you didn’t. The outcome would still be the same.”
The van picked up speed as it hugged the on-ramp to the highway. Angel swallowed hard and grabbed the door handle just as the locks snapped in place.
“Please, man! My girl is pregnant. You let me go and, I swear, I won’t say anything,” Angel begged, but the big Indian’s mammoth fist came down like a bloody hammer before Angel could say another word.
It was a fever dream, it had to be, one of the really bad ones where his temperature scooted up past 105, when his mom would wake Angel up from the nightmare and hand-feed him spoonfuls of tomato soup and sips of cold water from a straw. Angel’s eyes felt sticky and his left one was swollen shut. He pried his good eye open and was hit with a sickly reality that was worse than the incessant pounding in his head as he recalled the big Indian and the pictures in the van. He quickly took in his surroundings and realized he was on the floor of a small room, wedged in the corner of the tiny space in a fetal position. Angel tried to open his mouth to speak, but his tongue felt lazy and fat as if it was affixed to the sides of his teeth.
“You’re up,” the big Indian said. “The small ones usually wake up sooner, since the big ones soak up the drugs real slow because of all their body fat.”
Angel felt a single tear slide from his right eye and stared straight ahead at a series of tiny, scuffed letters someone had etched like a desperate SOS into the floor border directly in front of him. Angel heard the big man’s footsteps thump purposefully in his direction. Before the giant hands pulled him to his feet, Angel silently read the message: Ben Gooden was here.
Angel couldn’t remember how he got into the middle of the woods, or how long he had been in the little house, but it was night now, pure dark with a blanket of clouds hanging thick and low, shielding any light from the stars that could help him find his way out. Angel looked down at the wide swath of not quite dried blood on his Run-DMC T-shirt. His fuzzy mind was alert just enough to give him one instruction.
The woods seemed eerily silent as Angel tried to make his escape, but the drugs and the pummeling he took in the van from the Indian slowed him down to an uneven, inebriated gait.
With each step, Angel began to remember the big Indian, who had been dressed in all black with dark smudges of paint that seemed to nearly erase his face, telling Angel he’d give him a five-minute lead before he started the hunt.
“Get it together,” Angel panted. He forced his eyes to focus and realized he was in the middle of a clearing, making him an easy target. Angel lumbered awkwardly toward a thicket of trees, his judgment still intact enough to realize if he couldn’t run, he could at least hide.
“Chak, chak, chak!” a bird called out its warning in the near distance.
“Blackbirds aren’t red,” Angel heard himself say as what appeared to be a large bloodred blackbird swooped down in his direction at breakneck speed. Angel put his hands over his head to protect himself from the oncoming assault, but the bird made a sharp ascent at the last second and was swallowed up into the night sky.
“Shit, man. I’m hallucinating. I’ve got to get my head straight.”
A hum of mosquitoes, a likely new batch ready to feast on Angel’s exposed forearms, whined in the near distance. Angel instinctively began swatting at his arms when the sound intensified, not a hum from mosquitoes he realized, but the sound of an object moving at a high rate of speed like it was splitting the air. Angel felt the steel head of the arrow pierce his chest, and he dropped to his knees. The pain was enormous, like nothing he’d ever felt before, and his heart seemed to quiver in an agonizing, unnatural beat. Angel watched helplessly as the big Indian appeared from behind a tree and pulled a camera out from his waist pack.
“It hurts, I know. The head of the arrow pierced your heart. I’m a perfect shot, but just to be sure, I always lace my arrows with a little something extra.”
Angel realized he was being dragged across the clearing. His chest felt like it would explode, and his heart would spring from his body, as the poison the big Indian had added to the arrow was quickly working its way through his system. Angel slumped forward and retched on himself, throwing up his own blood.
The big Indian dragged Angel’s body to a giant oak, ready to pose him for his death shot. Angel started to think of his girl, Sophie, but the image of her face seemed to fly away and was replaced by a little boy, maybe nine years old, running through the woods for all he was worth, away from a man who looked like a younger version of the big Indian. Angel could see the boy, bathed in black and white like he was starring in a vintage slasher movie, breathing hard as his lean arms and legs ducked under branches and weaved carefully through the dense woods until he reached a road. An older-model car, which somehow looked brand-new, screeched to a stop as the boy ran in front of its path, and he waved his small hands in the air so the vehicle would be forced to see him.
“Please stop! I’ve got to get home before they get my sister!” the boy cried out.
Angel felt his torso being propped up against a tree. As the flash from the big Indian’s camera lit up a few feet away from him, Angel felt like crying when he saw the image of the car veer to the other lane to avoid the little boy and then speed away.
Not to be defeated, the little boy ran as fast as he could and skimmed the tree line along the side of the road to avoid being seen by the big Indian. The boy followed the bend in the road up ahead of him; and when the child disappeared from sight, Angel let out one last whisper before he died, “I hope the Ben boy made it.”
Julia Gooden needed to do the first five-mile loop around Belle Isle Park alone. The unforgiving Detroit morning summer heat made her long, dark ponytail feel slick against her back, but Julia refused to let up on her punishing pace. She pushed herself even harder as she gained ground on two early-thirty-something male joggers whom she had seen check her and another woman out earlier in the parking lot, the two men snickering like two junior-high-school boys as one obviously said something lewd about Julia to his buddy as they stretched out by their Beemer convertible, a flashy red car with an obnoxious license plate that read C YABABY.
Julia felt a screaming burn in her calf muscles, but ignored the pain. The Dossin Great Lakes Museum became a blur as she sprinted past it and edged her way toward the two Beemer guys ahead of her on the path. The men were likely a few years younger than Julia, who was thirty-seven, but she had no plans of letting them win. Being a crime reporter in the city of Detroit for almost fifteen years, Julia knew how to read people in an instant, and she’d bet her life that neither of the two men had to learn the cold, hard lessons she was forced to as a child, that she’d have to fight like hell each and every day just to survive. Julia smiled as she easily outpaced the two men and gave them a victory wave over her shoulder, not bothering to look back as she pounded ahead of them on the trail. Julia had survived several attempts on her life in recent years, and she surely wasn’t going to let two prissy guys who thought it was okay to talk smack about women beat her.
Julia looked out at the Detroit River as she looped past the Coast Guard Station and took in the Canadian shoreline in the far distance. Belle Isle was the city’s largest public park, and at 983 acres, it was even bigger than Central Park in New York. While the city of Detroit underwent the decline of the automobile industry, a painful bankruptcy, and a scourge of blight as homes and entire neighborhoods on its outskirts were abandoned, leaving many areas of the city looking like a post-apocalyptic urban jungle, Belle Isle Park somehow remained untouched. It was far enough away from the city, its only physical point of connection to Detroit being the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, and provided Julia the comfort of anonymity. That was exactly what Julia wanted, a place large enough so that when she met up with her running partner, it would be unlikely that she’d bump into anyone else she knew.
Julia slowed at the meet-up spot, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, and downed half the water from her bottle, shifting her weight from foot to foot in a light jog. As a self-imposed rule, Julia had to keep moving. Always. Dr. Alex Bruegger, the psychiatrist she’d seen for the past seven months, and who seemed to have an endless supply of tweed coats, had finally promised he’d stop asking Julia, “How did that make you feel?” Their agreement was made during her second visit after Julia warned the shrink she’d never return otherwise. In one of their early sessions, Dr. Bruegger had asked Julia if her relentless running regimen, up to ten miles a day, six days a week, was a form of punishment for not being able to remember what had happened to her brother, Ben, the night he was abducted, despite the fact that Julia was in the same room when it happened. Julia had discovered Dr. Bruegger routinely circled back to the same theme, and in this case, his belief that much of Julia’s residual pain from her childhood tragedy was self-inflicted. Julia denied the doctor’s theory, which she really wanted to tell him was bullshit, but kept the real reason to herself. Deep down, in the dark folds of long ago memories that had never let her go, Julia felt like if she could run fast enough, she could catch the monster that had snatched her nine-year-old brother when they were children. Some thirty years later, Ben’s case remained cold but never forgotten, by Julia at least. So being sedentary was never an option that Julia had ever once entertained.
Julia turned around at the familiar voice and grinned widely at her running partner, Detroit police detective Raymond Navarro, who wore loose-fitting black shorts and a sleeveless bright blue compression shirt. The Under Armour tight-fitting top showcased Navarro’s barbed wire tattoo on his left bicep and the rest of his well-developed muscles from years of lifting weights in the gym until a bullet to his shoulder recently forced him to put his disciplined workout routine on temporary hiatus until he healed.
Navarro’s index finger slowly descended down the length of Julia’s throat to her collarbone and wiped away a trickle of sweat before it slid any farther. “You started without me, I see.”
“I got here early. Did you know the guy, James Scott, who this fountain is named after, was actually a philandering jerk?”
“Ah, so that’s why you wanted to meet here, because it reminded you of another philandering jerk. If you try and vandalize the fountain as payback, you know I’m going to have to arrest you, no matter how much I like you.”
“Another Sigmund Freud, just what I need. And for the record, I wasn’t thinking about David. Really,” Julia answered, and tried to block out an image of her once-estranged husband, David, and the dregs of all that was left of their broken marriage before he was killed.
“I’m not a jealous man, Julia. You know that. But your jogging outfit almost made me hit a tree when I pulled up.”
“It’s almost ninety-five degrees already. A running bra and shorts is all I can handle.”
“You run with me, I don’t care what you wear. I just don’t want you to get hassled when you’re jogging alone.”
The Beemer twins, with their matching manicures and hairless chests, turned the corner and spied Julia, prompting one of them to lean into his friend and say something that likely wasn’t the Lord’s Prayer. The friend donned a knowing smirk and started to laugh, but his laughter abruptly stopped as Navarro, all six feet three inches and 220 pounds of him, shot off a glance in their direction.
“Have a nice damn day, boys,” Julia called out as the two passed.
“You know them?” Navarro asked.
“Just fellow joggers. We’re a friendly lot.”
“Right,” Navarro answered, knowing Julia was feeding him a line of bull.
The Beemer boys picked up their pace as they turned the corner. Navarro then looked over his shoulder to be sure he and Julia were alone. Satisfied, he wrapped one arm around Julia’s waist, pulled her body tightly against his, and gave her a deep kiss. Julia felt his hand begin to move down her bare waist and she made herself pull away.
“Hey, we’re in public,” Julia protested.
“I need to take advantage of the few times when I can get you alone. You know, we did a stakeout here a couple years ago. We busted a drug ring that was doing business at the other end of the park. There’s a building by the lighthouse where we did the surveillance. There’s not a lot of room in there, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You can’t fool around before you run. You lose your edge,” she said.
“My edge, huh? Tell you what, I’m not too worried about my edge right now. You’re going to kick my ass out here on these jogging trails anyway. So I’m willing to trade off one performance for another, if you’re following my train of thought here.”
“We’re purely platonic in public. That’s the deal we made.”
“No one is going to be looking at us going at it inside a building that’s supposed to be closed off to the public. Tell you what? If anyone looks in, I’ll shoot them.”
“Very funny,” Julia answered. “I just want to be sure we keep a low profile, right now anyway.”
“Come on, Gooden. I was just playing with you,” Navarro said. He released Julia from their close embrace, but still hung on to her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’ve been thinking, the Woodward Dream Cruise is coming up in a couple of weeks. I bet Logan and Will would love to go. I could take them or we could all go together. What do you say? Thousands of cool cars all cruising down Woodward Avenue. Automotive heaven, Detroit style. Your boys would have a blast.”
“I know they would. But let me think about it. I need to make sure I’m not rushing things for them. I hope you understand.”
“Of course. It’s got to be tough for them, losing their dad.”
“It’s harder on Logan because he’s older, and he knows what his dad did. I’m sorry if you feel like I’m shutting you out, but I need to be sure they’re okay before I let them know we’re together.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. There’s no time frame here. You tell your boys about us when you’re ready. I waited eleven years to get you back, so I can wait as long as you need. But if I had my way, I’d take out a billboard on I-75 and announce it to the whole world.”
“Ray Navarro, the tough cop. If people only knew your soft side, you’d lose that cool macho rep in a heartbeat,” Julia said, and brushed her fingers playfully through Navarro’s thick shock of dark hair. “Are we running or what?”
“Just be kind. When the shoulder heals, I’ll show you up in the gym.”
“Sure you will.”
Julia began to toss her water bottle back in her waist pack when her cell phone buzzed. “Let me check this. Logan is at camp, and Helen was going to take Will to the zoo, but I want to be sure they’re okay.”
“Maybe it’s your Realtor calling with an offer on your house. That penthouse is still for sale in my building. Just two stories above me and it’s got a killer view,” Navarro said, and gave Julia a wink. “I so love to bust your chops, Gooden. You should have seen the look on your face just now.”
Julia shook her head over Navarro’s taunt and reached for her cell phone, just as Navarro’s phone and pager sounded in unison.
“It’s the chief. I’ve got to take this,” Navarro said. Julia looked down at her phone screen as her city editor’s name, Virginia Remi, popped up. Navarro raised his finger for Julia to give him a minute, and she watched as Navarro jogged over to the other side of the fountain, so reporter and cop would be out of earshot from their respected bosses.
“Where are you?” Virginia snapped.
“Taking a run before work.”
“You’re going to have a heart attack running in this heat. Listen, before you get to the newsroom, can you swing by Gilbo Avenue? Hold on. Let me check my notes. The exact location is Gilbo and Lyford.”
“What am I looking for? A residence?”
“A dead body. Sounds like a young guy, possibly Hispanic, male.”
“Do you have anything more than that? Could be a drug overdose. There are a lot of abandoned lots down that way. You have a better marker for me?”
“Look for the cop cars. It just came over the scanner. The dead guy could be a druggy or drunk who got rolled, which isn’t a story, but from the chatter on the scanner, I think it could be more than that, so check it out. Tom Spiegel is working a story about how the mayor is touting some new report that claims violent crimes are down in the city. Maybe we can tie this in as an example of how Mayor Anderson’s new statistics division is manipulating data to come up with yet another bullshit report to try and make him look good.”
“Always the cynic.”
“That’s my job. Call me if it turns out to be anything good.”
Julia watched as Navarro rounded the fountain in her direction and hoped she’d never reach the point in her journalism career where she’d wonder if a man’s death could hopefully turn into something good.
“Sorry, Gooden, but I have to bail on our run.”
“What you got?”
“Dead male, twenty years old. Two neighborhood kids found his body dumped over on Gilbo Avenue. Between us, the vic’s name is Angel Perez.”
“My editor just called me with the same tip, minus the name. Did he OD?”
“It looks like he was murdered. Blunt force trauma to his head, but the cause of death, depending on what the coroner comes back with, was most likely caused by an injury to his chest.”
“The guys at the scene don’t think so. Whatever killed Angel Perez was small and precise and went in deep.”
“Do we know anything about Angel?”
“College kid. I’ve got to go down to the scene now, but I’ll try and keep the other members of the press away until you get there,” Navarro said, and tossed Julia the key to his apartment. “Grab a quick shower at my place and head down to Gilbo Avenue as fast as you can.”
“Thanks, I’ll take you up on your offer. I have my work clothes in my car. I get the feeling you know more about this guy than you’re letting on.”
Navarro leaned in and gave Julia a quick kiss on her forehead. “Got to go, beautiful.”
“Come on, Navarro. Who is he?”
“Between us. Angel Perez is the nephew of Edgar Sanchez.”
“The city councilman?”
“The one and only,” Navarro answered. “Sanchez is apparently losing his mind. He’s holding a press conference in a couple of hours.”
“Okay. Thanks for this. I mean it.”
“Keep it under wraps, but this could turn out to be a bigger story than you think. Whoever killed Angel Perez likely did it with a bow and arrow.”
“Are you serious? That’s got to be a first.”
“Not according to the chief. Linderman just told me there have been other victims killed the same way.”
“If it’s a serial killer, how come I haven’t heard anything about it?”
“Linderman just told me the last body was found a long time ago, so the cops figured the killer had died or moved away.”
Julia felt a cool shiver run through her. “So the killer is out of hibernation and ready to hunt again.”
“Maybe, but why would this guy take such a long break? Doesn’t fit the normal profile.”
Julia stared vacantly through the swollen sail of a boat that was skimming across the water and felt the familiar grip of desperation and loss squeeze her tight.
“The past is never really over for any of us. I’m betting not even for a killer.”
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