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Private detective Terry Luvello has just been handed the biggest case of his career. During confession, a man has twice declared his intent to commit murder. In both cases, the murders later occurred in exactly the way the unknown man had described.

 

Hoping to keep the church connection out of the newspapers, the parish pastor asks Terry to find the killer and act as his liaison with the Cleveland Police and Detective Hannah Page. While dealing with their own growing attraction, Terry and Hannah race from Cleveland to New Orleans to catch a brilliant and ruthless killer acting on his own twisted compulsion.

 

Those who know Terry describe him as intelligent, obsessive, and annoying, often all at once. To solve this case, Terry must also put his uniquely wry sense of humor into play, coming to terms with a longstanding grudge against the Catholic Church and his identity as a transgender male.

Chapter One

     Amos Johnson was an enforcer. A triggerman for the Cleveland mob, Amos stood six-foot-four with the physique and ornery nature of a habitual steroid user. His body was his business, and Amos took his business seriously.

     Amos also loved tattoos. Known as “Tatts” to his friends, Amos proudly claimed to have visited every tattoo parlor in the city of Cleveland. Fully covered from head to toe, the design on his left forearm was a tribute to his mother.

     Amos’s other tattoos, not nearly as sentimental, would get him thrown out of any polite gathering in the city. That assumed, of course, someone would be foolhardy enough to try.

     Not being part of polite society myself, Amos and his tattoos didn’t bother me at all. We shared the same opinion about the Browns, blues music, and the current state of the movie industry. With the people I met in my business, that was pretty much the best you could hope for. Amos might not have understood me, but he was at least willing to make the effort.

     I met Amos almost a year ago during a custody dispute with his ex-wife. His ex, a heroin addict, had run off with Amos’s two-year-old daughter, Leann. It wasn’t that Amos thought he should take care of his daughter—he knew he wasn’t cut out for parenthood any more than his ex-wife. Amos’s goal instead was to return Leann to the person who really did have custody, his beloved mother, Amelia. He hired me, a licensed private investigator, to make that reunion happen.

     After a lucky break, I was able to return Leann to her grandmother within two days of her abduction. Amos was grateful, but he couldn’t pay me much. That was pretty much an occupational hazard, though Amos promised he would be forever in my debt. One year later, that was a marker I needed to call.

     My old-school mother would call Amos a thug. I didn’t care if Amos was a thug because tonight, he was my thug. Bored and uncomfortable, Amos and I were crouched behind a car on the fifth floor of the main student parking garage at Creesmont College, a small liberal arts school about twenty miles outside of Greater Cleveland.

     As colleges go, Creesmont wasn’t much. Its history department was rated as one of the top thirty programs for schools of its size, and that was about it for high-level academics at the college. In a move born of desperation, Creesmont administration decided to take advantage of the school’s low academic reputation by investing more in athletics. That bet had paid off, and the school’s football team currently ranked in the top five of Division Three schools across the country.

     Amos and I were waiting to meet James O’Keefe. Considered a potential low-round pick in the next NFL draft, O’Keefe was the senior quarterback of this year’s Creesmont football team. Six-foot-three, movie-star handsome and outwardly friendly, he was every girl’s dream date. Unfortunately for those girls, James preferred rape to relationships.

     My client, Jenna Adamcheck, was a third-year English major at Creesmont. To earn extra money, Jenna had signed up as a tutor for the Creesmont Athletic Program, and her first client was James O’Keefe.

     With a long-term boyfriend at another school, Jenna had little interest in James’s early attempts at seduction. Her indifference only piqued James’s interest, and Jenna was surprised two weeks into their arrangement when James showed up at her dorm room requesting an unscheduled tutoring session. Jenna reluctantly allowed James into her room, where he then continued his courtship by pushing Jenna onto her bed and ripping off her sweater top.

     Jenna was no shrinking violet. Taught by her father to always fight back, she aimed a well-placed knee at James’s crotch. The knee connected, and James, now in considerable pain, fought to regain the upper hand.

     Jenna, however, was not through. Furious, she grabbed the fork she was using for dinner and aimed it at James’s left eye. While she missed, the fork drew blood as it gashed her assailant’s left cheek. Unsure how to deal with a woman who hit back, James ran from Jenna’s room. Cursing and in pain, he plotted his revenge.

     Thinking she had resolved the incident, Jenna didn’t report James to Creesmont administration. That was a mistake; although, it did initially appear James had backed off.

     Three days later, Jenna found the windshield of her 2018 Kia Forte smashed and a typewritten note placed on the driver’s seat. The message read, “Sluts always pay in the end.” Alarmed, Jenna reported the incident to campus police along with her suspicions as to the culprit. Without evidence, those suspicions were promptly ignored.

     The day of her police report, Jenna saw James watching from a distance as she exited her last class. When James saw her looking back, he smiled his brightest student-athlete smile before making an obscene gesture. Over the next few days, James began following Jenna everywhere she went on campus, always keeping a discreet distance to avoid any verifiable claims of harassment. After three more days, James’s stalking took a different turn, and Jenna began finding posters with her picture hanging by the entrance to her dormitory. She showed me the ones she’d torn down, and “slut” was one of the nicer words James used.

     Jenna realized the harassment would ultimately lead to another attempted rape, this time potentially including James’s friends. Believing the campus police were useless, she decided to enlist outside help. Not having a lot of money, that led her to me.

     Amos and I were waiting for James just before midnight on the top level of the campus parking lot adjacent to the Creesmont athletic dormitory. Just as he had the previous three nights, James pulled into the lot at precisely eleven forty-five, fifteen minutes before the football team’s curfew.

I had realized two things while watching James both on and off campus: James was a creature of habit, and James was in love. The object of his devotion, his 1965 burgundy Ford Mustang hardtop, would have caught any man’s eye. The 1965 was the original Mustang released by Ford. It was truly a sight to behold, and demolishing it would make me resent James all the more.

     Every evening James parked his car in the same spot on the top, fifth floor in the student parking garage. There were plenty of spots lower down, but James clearly didn’t want to risk another car denting his beloved Mustang.

     Amos and I waited for James behind the only other car parked on the fifth level. Neither of us worried about surveillance cameras. Using a pellet gun, Amos had previously taken care of the fifth-floor cameras along with those on several other levels. I knew campus security, usually harried and understaffed, would assume their destruction had been the work of vandals. They would replace the cameras when time and budget allowed.

Its cameras now disabled, the fifth floor was the perfect place for a confrontation. Amos and I would have James all to ourselves, and I intended to have some fun.

     James quickly exited his car before turning to take one last look at his Mustang. I stepped out from behind my hiding spot.

“You’ve been a bad boy, Jim.”

     He wasn’t expecting company, and he didn’t know how to react. He tried bluster.

     “Who the fuck are you?”

     “Never mind that, Jim. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to pick on girls?”

     The idiot thought I was referring to myself. “I don’t give autographs to queers.”

Still basking in his witty comeback, James finally noticed the tire iron swinging in my right hand. Unfortunately for James, he failed to see the brass knuckles in my left.

     At five-foot-seven and a hundred forty pounds, I had a survivor’s aversion to fair fighting. James’s lack of attention went uncorrected until the knuckles connected with his liver.

     Few blows are more excruciating than a punch to the liver. James didn’t lose consciousness, though he collapsed in pain on the parking lot floor. It was a sight Jenna Adamcheck would have paid extra to see, but I had much more planned for our evening. I kicked James to get his attention.

     “Damn it, Jim, you took that punch like a trooper. I’m glad you didn’t pass out. Now you can watch what we do to your car.”

     I waved my hand, and Amos stepped into view, all six-foot-four, horrifying inches of him. Amos had a tire iron of his own, and he used it to terrifying effect. He started with the Mustang’s windshield, moved around to the side windows, and then to the rear. In just sixty seconds, there wasn’t a section of glass that hadn’t been demolished. Amos then switched his attention to the car’s hood and trunk. Five minutes after he started, the Mustang looked like a refugee from a demolition derby.

     Watching Amos work on his beloved car, James looked utterly defeated. I bent down to refocus his attention.

     “Jim, I need you to listen to me.” He heard my voice, but he could only watch his car. Two more quick kicks, and he was again facing me.

“You’ve been bothering Jenna Adamcheck—that will stop right now. I need you to understand me, Jim. This is strike one. You talk to Jenna, you look at Jenna, you post even one more note about Jenna, and that will be strike two. Strike two means my friend over there will take his tire iron to your knees. How many guys do you think get drafted by the NFL with two broken kneecaps?”

     He didn’t respond, so I kicked him again, this time in the groin.

     “I asked you a question, asshole. You think you’ll get drafted with two broken knees?”

James shook his head weakly. I kicked him again for emphasis and pulled out my Glock. James now lay in a fetal position on the concrete floor; it was the perfect time for show-and-tell.

     “Now, let’s talk about strike three. The game we’re playing here, it’s three strikes, and you’re dead. You might think a queer like me would never shoot you. Who knows, maybe you’re right. But I want you to take a good look at my associate.”

Amos stepped into James’s line of sight. Seeing him, James started to noticeably whimper.

     “You’re looking at a man who kills people for a living. He wanted to kill you tonight, but I talked him out of it. If anything happens to Jenna, that protection goes away, and you are a dead man. That warning includes your moron football friends as well. If anything happens to Jenna, if she even trips and falls on the sidewalk, I’ll assume you are responsible.”

     Tatts swung his tire iron menacingly. “You should at least let me break his knees. Enough with the three strikes shit.”

I bent down once more, only inches from James’s face.

     “You see, Jim? You owe me your life, and I haven’t even asked you to thank me.”

     James muttered something unintelligible. It reminded me of one more thing he needed to know.

“I almost forgot something very important, Jim. Thanks for helping me remember.”

     I turned to Amos. “Show Jim what you have in your hand.”

     Amos smiled and again began swinging the tire iron. Lying next to his car, James curled himself into a little ball for protection. Before Amos could go full-on crazy, I said, “The other hand, Tatts.”

     Amos grunted with disappointment, but he held up his other hand. In it was a small object, the miniature camera I’d given him when we met earlier that evening. James looked confused, so I explained.

     “Let’s talk about the cops. For a guy in your position, they might seem like your salvation. They find us; they arrest us, and your troubles are completely over. Hell, you’d be back to raping women before you know it.

     “If I were you, Jim, I’d rethink that little strategy. You see, all the time I was kicking your ass, my associate over there was taking pictures. I’m sure he even got some of you crying like a baby on the parking lot floor.

     “Now, getting beaten up by a big guy like my friend, your buddies might understand that. They might even show you some sympathy. Imagine, though, if those pictures get out, and everyone realizes you were messed up by some five-foot-seven transgender guy. Imagine if that transgender guy also said he beat you up because you two were in a relationship, and he found that you were cheating.

     “What would your teammates think? What would your family think? Hell, imagine what the NFL would think—you know they investigate everyone they draft. At that point, we might as well take out your knees; you wouldn’t need them for football anymore. You could try denying everything, but people would always wonder. No one would ever look at you the same.

     “So if someone insists on calling the cops when they see the condition you’re in, I would just tell them a couple of guys snuck up from behind and started whaling on you before you could react. They might not believe you, but stick to your story, and they won’t have much choice.

     “Do we understand each other, Jim? Are you gonna mess with Jenna Adamcheck anymore?”

     He shook his head no, but I kicked him anyway. No particular reason; it just felt right.

     Amos and I watched James stagger toward the parking lot exit. We then left ourselves, making sure to take the side exit without an attendant.

     As we walked toward our respective vehicles, Amos said, “You know, I’ve seen him play. He’s got a pansy arm. No way he makes it to the NFL.”

     “I’ve seen him play too. He couldn’t even make it in Division One. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t know that.”

     “You shouldn’t have let him call you a queer. You’re more of a guy than he is.”

     “Don’t worry, Amos. I know exactly what I am.”

     It was the first real lie I’d told that evening.

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