“Jacob Stone is equal parts Thomas Harris, Michael Connelly, Jo Nesbo, and Stephen King. CRUEL will leave you shaking . . . with fear, excitement, and the uncontrollable compulsion to keep on reading.”
—Lee Goldberg, #1 New York Times bestselling author of True Fiction
“17.” L.A. detective Morris Brick knows the number all too well. It was the gruesome signature the Nightmare Man left next to his victims’ bodies. Brick’s father was the first to investigate the killings. Five women were butchered before the perpetrator vanished. Seventeen years later he resurfaced—to kill again in the same depraved ways. Now another seventeen years have passed. Brick knows in his gut that it’s time for the Nightmare Man to reawaken. But even Brick can’t imagine the madman’s true agenda. Or just how terrifying the sleepless nights are going to get in the City of Angels . . .
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The toy poodle–pit bull mix was lying on her stomach, her paws covering a short, stubby snout. Lori Fletcher's heart melted when she saw her.
"Her name is Sally," Brian said. Rail-thin and gangly, the teenager wore a stained T-shirt, torn jeans, and what Lori hoped was only mud-encrusted tennis sneakers. He was a volunteer at the animal shelter and was showing her the dogs available for adoption. Just a kid, she thought, barely seventeen, if that. A few times she caught him sneaking peeks at her. She found him adorable, almost as much as the poodle–pit bull mix in the cage. He carried a loose-leaf binder that provided information about each dog, and he cleared his throat so his voice wouldn't crack as he read the sparse notes that had been provided about Sally, telling Lori the dog displayed a gentle temperament, would be good with children, and appeared to be only six months old. "Do you want me to open the cage so you can say hello to her?"
Lori wasn't there to adopt a soft, cuddly sweetheart like this mix, but against her better judgment she nodded. Brian unlatched the cage and opened the metal door, and the dog stood up and began slowly wagging her tail. Ever so cautiously the pooch edged toward the opening so she could stick her stubby nose out of the cage. The next thing Lori knew, she had the dog squirming in her arms as she hugged the poodle–pit bull mix to her chest, and the dog likewise struggled to lick her face. Lori broke out laughing. It had been an unusually stressful few weeks, and she needed something like this more than she could've imagined. She was smitten.
"Love at first sight," Brian said, a note of jealousy in his voice. He showed a smart-alecky grin. "Or maybe it's love at first lick."
The dog was far more toy poodle than pit bull. While she had a pit bull's square-shaped snout and blocky body, she was a small thing weighing less than twenty pounds with a poodle's soft downy fur. But she wasn't what Lori had in mind. The reason she needed a dog was to protect her from him. Except she didn't know who he was.
A fear she couldn't quite understand had been worming its way into her consciousness for weeks, and then four days ago she awoke with a profound thought screaming in her brain: he is going to do terrible things to you. She tried to dismiss this as simply a manifestation of her growing anxiety, except the certainty that he existed seemed so real that it left her shaken. It made no sense. She knew that, and for several days she tried to convince herself she'd only had a bad dream, and that was the only reason for the unease gnawing at her. Logically, that was what it had to be, except she couldn't remember anything about the dream, and the fear that a killer was waiting for her in the shadows became overwhelming. Maybe she was suffering from a nervous breakdown. Maybe the explanation was as simple as that, but when she woke up this morning sobbing in terror that he was soon going to do depraved and horrible things to her, she believed it as much as she ever believed anything. She decided she had two choices: check herself in for psychiatric evaluation or get a dog to protect her. As much as Sally tugged at her heartstrings, the little fluff ball wouldn't be able to protect her from a gust of wind. So she steeled herself and handed the dog back to Brian.
"I should look at other dogs before making a decision," she said.
The teenager's eyes widened with surprise, as he must've been sure Lori had found her match, but he placed the dog back in the cage, and as the door latched shut, the poodle–pit bull mix let out a heartbroken whine. This struck Lori like a dagger. She almost relented, but that ever-pervasive thought echoed in her head. He's out there, and he'll be coming for you soon.
Brian continued the tour. Most of the dogs up for adoption were pit bulls. There was one Chihuahua and a beagle and pug mix, but just about every other dog seemed to be pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Lori knew they had a reputation for ferocity, but that was probably only if they had been badly mistreated or trained that way, and the ones she saw all looked like loveable sweethearts, just like Sally. None of them would be able to protect her from her boogeyman ... if he in fact existed.
When Brian brought her to a cage holding a large, angry-looking beast, Lori knew she'd found her protector. The animal had a thick, squat body, a large head, and a coal-black coat mottled with reddish- brown streaks. The dog gave her a sinister, dead-eyed stare. As she moved closer to the cage, a threatening noise between a snarl and a growl rumbled out of the beast's throat. If it was meant to scare Lori off, it didn't work. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The ferocity made her feel safe. She asked Brian if she could meet the dog.
"Really?" he asked, his voice rising an octave.
"He looks to me like he could use a good home."
Brian consulted the loose-leaf binder, flipping through the pages until he found the one matching the cage number. His eyes scrunched up as he looked from the page to the dog and back to the page. "It says here his name's Lucy," he said.
Lori could see that the dog was male, and one that hadn't been neutered. "That's an odd name for him."
"Very odd," Brian agreed. He read more of the notes associated with the animal. "The veterinarian who examined him thinks he's part Rottweiler and part Doberman. A hundred and twenty pounds. He's had all his shots." The teenager smirked. "If you adopt him, you should change his name to Lucky."
"He's only got three days left to be adopted before being put down. Are you sure you want me to take him out of his cage?"
The teenager seemed nervous to put his fingers anywhere near Lucy. Lori smiled sweetly at him and told him she'd do it. She had grown up with two Rhodesian ridgebacks, and large dogs didn't intimidate her. She also knew the secret to a dog's heart. Lucy made more snarling, growling noises and bared his fangs as she unlatched the cage and opened it. But the dog stayed where he was and didn't move until Lori reached into her pocket and took out a bacon- flavored treat. The dog moved quickly then, snatching the treat away, somehow leaving her fingers intact. When Lori offered another treat, this one held in the palm of her hand, the dog was more careful about taking it. He even consented to let her scratch him behind the ear and thump him on the side.
As Lori stood beside the animal, she felt safe for the first time in days. She smiled at him. I'll save your life and you'll save mine. The dog cocked his head and gave her a quizzical look in return.
"I found my dog," she told Brian. "Can I take him home with me?"CHAPTER 2
Morris Brick had not been to Luzana's before, and for good reason. The restaurant on North Cahuenga Boulevard had a reputation for putting a serious dent in its customers' wallets, but even if that wasn't the case, there was little chance he would've been able to get a table there. Luzana's had become Los Angeles's most exclusive hotspot. A place for Hollywood royalty, sports celebrities, and the ultra-rich to be seen and noticed. Morris might've become a minor celebrity after years of catching depraved serial killers, but that still wouldn't have bought him a table reservation at Luzana's, and so it only mildly surprised him when the maître d'hôtel gave him the snootiest look he had ever seen. He was genuinely surprised, however, after the man peered over his stand to see that the pig-like grunt just heard had come from Parker, Morris's all-white bull terrier, that he made a shooing gesture with both hands. That was just plain rude!
Morris arched an eyebrow and, keeping his voice amiable, asked, "Am I supposed to guess that means you have no tables available? At twenty past two on a Tuesday?"
If it were possible, the maître d' would've climbed onto a stepladder so he could look even further down his nose at Morris. "Apparently," he mumbled under his breath.
Morris stood his ground and lazily rubbed his jaw. If he were the vindictive type, he could've called in a favor at the mayor's office and had the place shut down for a kitchen violation — imagined or real, it didn't matter. After all, six months ago he and his team at Morris Brick Investigations, commonly known as MBI, very likely saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of fellow Angelenos, and at a heavy cost. Charlie Bogle had almost died after being shot in the chest and hadn't been the same since, even quitting MBI two months ago, and Morris himself had taken shrapnel to the leg from a booby trap, and it was only since last month that he was able to put away his cane. But as tempted as he was to drag the maître d' out from behind the stand and teach him some manners, he maintained a calm demeanor and told him he was meeting a friend. "Philip Stonehedge. He's already here," he said.
The maître d' opened his eyes wide with incredulity. Stonehedge was high up on Hollywood's A-list, and not only that, he was dating the gorgeous Brie Evans, who sat near the top of the list. But since there was a remote chance Morris might be telling the truth, he asked for Morris's name and made a phone call, keeping his voice low so Morris couldn't eavesdrop. Shortly afterward, a waiter came bustling out of the main dining room and whispered something to the maître d', whose attitude quickly changed.
It was almost as if a magic wand had been waved — in less time than it took to snap one's fingers, his contempt transformed to full-blown obsequiousness. He bowed and asked Morris to follow him, and as he led them through the crowded dining room filled with Hollywood royalty and other studio muckety-mucks and onward to the equally bustling outdoor patio, Morris resisted the urge to plant a kick onto the man's well-padded derriere.
Parker had been behaving himself, but he suddenly grunted excitedly and lurched forward as he strained against his leash. The bull terrier must've spotted Stonehedge, who was grinning at them from his table, the thick, jagged scar running down his cheek giving his grin a sardonic quality. The actor had gotten the scar from being slashed with a gun barrel. This happened after he had arranged with the mayor's office to tag along with Morris on the Skull Cracker Killer investigation, although it wasn't SCK who did the slashing but a vicious criminal by the name of Alex Malfi who didn't appreciate the actor trying to interfere with a Beverly Hills jewelry store robbery. Malfi further showed his displeasure toward Stonehedge by shooting him in the thigh, and the actor would've died if it hadn't been for Morris's later heroics.
Stonehedge left the table to playfully tussle with Parker, then shook Morris's hand and reached over to bring him in for a hug. The maître d' stood deferentially off to the side until Stonehedge slipped him a fifty. Morris and Parker joined Stonehedge at the table, which already had several platters of food waiting for them. When the bull terrier grunted impatiently, the actor fed him a piece of meat from one of the platters.
"Wood-grilled lamb tenderloin wrapped in jamón ibérico," the actor said, beaming. "Absolutely delicious."
Morris knew enough Spanish to guess that jamón ibérico was a kind of expensive imported ham. Given the way Parker wolfed it down and grunted for more, the dog must've concurred with Stonehedge's assessment.
"Don't give him too much," Morris said. "He needs to lose a few pounds."
Stonehedge laughed at that. "Don't we all?"
That was true for Morris. He needed to drop ten pounds from his waistline, but for someone who enjoyed gourmet food as much as Stonehedge, his friend somehow stayed as lean as a marathon runner. Before he could object, Stonehedge fed Parker another piece of lamb. Morris snared a piece for himself and had to agree it was exceptional. A waitress came over to take his drink order. Stonehedge had a bottle of champagne already at the table. When Morris tried ordering a beer, his friend stopped him.
"You're not seeing me off with a beer," he insisted. Then to the waitress, "My buddy will have a le daiquiri."
Before Morris could say anything, the waitress was rushing away from the table. "Le daiquiri as opposed to a daiquiri?" he asked.
"It's the le that makes it so special," the actor said with a straight face. "When you taste it, you'll be glad I changed your order. If not, you can always have her bring you a beer. Besides, this is the last chance I'll have in four months to be so obnoxious with you."
"At least you admit it."
Stonehedge lifted his champagne glass, his eyes narrowing as he gazed at the slightly rose-colored bubbly. "I'm nothing if not painfully self-aware of my indulgences and faults." He took a sip of his drink and turned again to Morris, his lips showing a pensive smile. "I'm glad you were able to make it. And I'm glad you were able to bring the little guy along."
"He never would've forgiven me if he knew I'd cost him a mooching opportunity at Luzana's."
As if on command, Parker let out a grunt. Stonehedge fed the dog what looked like a blackened piece of meat from another platter. "Truffle-encrusted Wagyu beef," he said. "It's even better than the lamb."
Morris whistled Parker over and ordered the bull terrier to lie down. The dog did as he was commanded, but not without letting out a few unhappy grumbles.
"I'm not sure I'll be able to get him to eat his dog food after this," Morris complained.
"Eh, if you put it in front of him, he'll eat it."
That was mostly true. Parker rarely ever walked away from his dish when there was still food in it. He was also a champion moocher, and Morris himself had proven over the years to be a soft touch, but he was trying to change his ways since Parker's last visit to the veterinarian. That was three weeks ago, and the veterinarian confirmed what Natalie had been telling him: that Parker needed to lose weight or it could cause health problems later on.
Morris asked, "When are you leaving?"
Stonehedge took another sip of his champagne. "Flying out of LAX eight this evening, and with losing eight hours I won't be arriving in Dublin until two tomorrow. Then a two-hour drive to Galway." His expression grew wistful. "My last decent food until then."
"This time you're making a romantic comedy?"
Stonehedge had taken what looked like a fancy slider from one of the platters and was munching on that. He waited until he swallowed his food before nodding. "You've got to try one of these, Morris. They're amazing. But yeah, that's right. Stumbling in the Rain. Not the best title for a rom-com, but the script's good, and my co-star is the lovely Claire Rose. The film will be a nice change of pace from the thrillers I've been making of late."
Morris took Stonehedge's advice and tried one of the sliders, and it was every bit as good as his friend had claimed. The filling was a thick slab of bacon coated with a sweet bean garlic glaze. He didn't have the heart to deprive Parker of bacon that delicious, and he scraped off the garlic glaze and fed the rest of the slider to his dog. Tomorrow would be another day to get back onto Parker's diet — and his own, for that matter.
Stonehedge watched with an amused grin but held back any comment as their waitress had returned with le daiquiri. Morris took a sip and had to admit it was better than any beer he could've ordered.
"A shame Brie isn't co-starring with you," Morris said.
Stonehedge made a face at that idea. "They wanted her, but Brie's tied up for the next two months. Probably better that we're not acting together. Competition's not the best thing for actors in a relationship. But we'll be seeing each other. Next week she's flying to Munich for a promotional event, and I'll hop over for a visit and take advantage of the beginning of Oktoberfest. But enough about that. How about yourself? Any interesting cases?"
"Mostly run-of-the-mill insurance fraud work." Morris had grabbed another piece of wood-grilled lamb and fed it to a grateful Parker. "The most interesting of which was a stolen coin collection I closed last week. The collection was appraised six months ago at one point two million and was supposedly stolen three months later in a home burglary. It turned out that the owner had sold off the collection to several private buyers and then staged the burglary. What he really bought for himself was a grand larceny charge."
"You're right. Sounds pretty run-of-the-mill."
"You can say what you're really thinking. Boring."
"Well, yeah, compared to hunting serial killers."
"After that psycho Jason Dorsage, I'm fine with boring."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cruel"
Copyright © 2018 Dave Zeltserman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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