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Chapter One

I never thought I’d walk into prison as a free man. Yet there I was, surrendering my car keys, wallet, and cell phone at the metal detector. When the C.O. told me to remove my shoes and step forward, I had to stop myself from turning to face the wall with my hands behind my head to wait for the pat down. Old habits die hard.

The metal detector was silent as I passed through it. On the other side, I stopped to collect my shoes while the officer rushed through reading me the waiver. He offered me the clipboard, and I signed the third piece of paper since coming into Angola, this one stating I understood the risk I was taking just walking into the place. The officer took the pen and clipboard back, clicked the pen once, and slid both through a slot in the safety glass.

Another door buzzed open, and a heavyset man with white hair and glasses walked in. Sharp blue eyes appraised me before he approached, flanked on either side by his faithful correctional officers. “Mister Kerrigan,” he said, extending a hand, “thanks for coming. I know it’s a long drive up from New Orleans.”

“Warden Kane. Call me Lazarus.” I forced myself to trade grips with the warden, but that was as far as I would go. He was supposed to be a decent man, but he was still a warden. His hands were rough and calloused, strong enough to crush steel.

Warden Kane nodded and turned, ushering me deeper into the prison. “The way Bill talked about you, I expected you to be eight feet tall with eyes made of fire.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I focused on the familiarity of the buzzing door and how the sound echoed off cement and steel. A narrow passageway with fluorescent lights waited on the other side. Linoleum floors, the stinging scent of harsh cleaning chemicals, the hushed whispers of an indistinct number of doctors, nurses, and patients… If not for the locked doors, it’d be like almost any other hospital.

Angola was one of the oldest prisons in the country. Like most, walking into Angola was like passing into another world, except this one was bigger and scarier. Over ninety percent of convicts inside those walls would die there, either because they’d been sentenced to die by lethal injection, or because they were serving life sentences. The place was laid out like a small town, covering as much space as Manhattan. The infirmary was its own building, attached to the rest of the prison only by a long, narrow walkway.

The way Warden Kane and the other correctional officers walked me through prison grounds, I never stepped foot in a cell block, but there were plenty of prisoners everywhere I looked. Working out in the fields, cleaning floors, being escorted by guards. They looked at me with the same jealous distrust I’d given anyone who came through the place whenever I was on the inside. They’d glance at me, my clothes, the ink-free skin, and wonder what I was doing there. Was someone in trouble? Was it an inspection? I’d be the talk of the place for days, probably a welcome deviation from their daily routines.

Warden Kane walked me to the rear room of the infirmary and stopped in front of a door to open it with a set of keys. With two guards behind me, I was boxed in. There was nowhere to go. If they put me in that room and shut the door—

No. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and counted to three. It wasn’t going to happen. I’d done my time, gotten out, and I was never going back. That part of my life was over.

“You okay there?” asked the warden.

I nodded and forced myself to swallow. It didn’t do a damn thing for my dry mouth or the tight feeling in my throat. “Just don’t like tight spaces is all.”

He grunted and pushed open the door. “I bet. Six years in Elayne Hunt, was it?”

“You checked up on me.”

The warden offered me a grin many would’ve mistaken as friendly. I’d been around enough correctional officers to know better. “Like I said, old Bill liked to talk. Especially in recent months. Old men get sentimental. Happens to the best of us. After you, Mister Kerrigan.”

I didn’t want a warden and two correctional officers at my back, but I moved anyway, my body failing even under instruction to disobey a direct order from an officer inside a prison.

The room was small and dark, no bigger than a bedroom. Crates of unopened medical supplies were stacked in neatly labeled boxes in one corner. Six drawers, like oversized filing cabinet drawers, were tucked into the opposite wall. There was space enough for only one examination table, and it sat in the center of the room. A white sheet had been draped over the body waiting on it. A man in scrubs and wearing a facial mask stood behind the exam table, waiting.

At the warden’s nod, the man in blue scrubs folded the sheet down from the body, revealing a balding white man in his mid-sixties. Feathery, white hair ringed his scalp, the hairline receding in a familiar pattern. Prominent wrinkles marked his forehead and under his eyes. Thin face, hard chin, long, narrow nose… He could’ve been any dead old man.

I forced myself to stop looking at his face and stared at the colorful ink on his chest and shoulders. There was a lot of it displayed proudly. The double S, three iron crosses, the number eighty-eight… Just seeing them on his body made me hate him all over again. I wanted to throw up. More than that, I wanted to turn around and walk out without acknowledging this asshole. He didn’t deserve another second of my time.

“William James Kerrigan,” the warden announced.

Hearing my last name attached to the dead thing in front of me made me feel dirty.

“Mister Kerrigan, is this your father?” asked the nurse.

“I’m very sorry,” said the warden. “I know this is a difficult time, but we need a verbal acknowledgment.”

He might’ve been my father, but that didn’t mean I had to be sorry he was dead. I gestured with two fingers for the nurse to cover him back up. “Yeah, it’s him. How did he die?”

If it’d been asleep in his bed, I would lose all faith in karma.

The warden tucked his thumbs in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Strangulation. We believe self-inflicted sometime in the early hours this morning. He used his sheet and a pencil. Wound it up real tight. We’re looking into it.”

I stared at the lump under the sheet, willing it to burst into flames. Why? After all this time, why now? What finally pushed you over the edge, old man? “Did he leave a note?”

“Didn’t leave much of anything. You can pick up his personal effects on your way out.” He leaned forward to catch my eye. “Will you be making arrangements?”

He wanted to know if I planned on burying him or letting the prison take care of it. It’d be a logistical nightmare to move his body, and as strapped for cash as I was, a near impossibility. I didn’t want or need the burial of a man I’d long considered dead already to complicate my life. Why the hell had I driven three hours to deal with this? I could’ve just let them bury him under a white sandstone cross on state grounds. In a hundred years, the heat and rain would wear the stone to less than nothing, which is what he already was to me.

“I’d like to call around,” I lied. “Get some estimates. Can I call about it in the morning?”

The warden and the nurse exchanged glances.

Warden Kane patted my shoulder as if we were friends. “Of course. I know this is difficult, especially considering the circumstances. However, we do have a strict seven-day policy. If you haven’t made arrangements by then, we’ll take care of things and send you a bill.”

Great. No matter what I did, I was getting saddled with this asshole’s debts. “Thank you. Can I go? I’ve got a long drive home.”

The walk back was a blur of buzzing doors and empty hallways until I saw the exit. Then butterflies surged in my stomach and sweat formed on the back of my neck. I eyed the few guards between me and the exit, wondering if they’d stop me. What if my coming here had prompted some new look at my file and they found they’d let me out by mistake? My heart beat in my ears as I realized I didn’t read the papers closely that they’d made me sign. I could’ve signed away my freedom with any one of them.

I quickened my steps toward the exit. I had to get out before something went horribly wrong.

“Mister Kerrigan?”

I halted as the officer behind the bulletproof glass waved a clipboard at me. Don’t run. They’ll shoot if you run. Whatever you do, don’t run! I turned to face her, but couldn’t speak.

She smiled. “You forgot to sign out.”

With shaky hands, I scrawled my signature over the line and waited for her to return my keys and wallet.

While I was still fumbling to put my wallet in my back pocket, a side door to the office buzzed open, and she came out with a small cardboard box. “Warden said to give you your father’s personal effects.”

I was still too shaken to refuse the box when she shoved it at me. When I finally made it back to my car, I thrust the box behind the passenger seat and drove the long, winding road to the prison exit without looking into the rearview mirror.

I was two miles past the prison turn off when I finally pulled over and let myself breathe. It’s over, I thought, resting my head against the steering wheel and willing my hands to stop shaking. You went in, made sure the old bastard was dead, got his stuff and got out. No one stopped you.

They wouldn’t have. There was no reason for them to hold me, and even if they’d had a reason, it wouldn’t have been legal. My fears were totally unfounded. Yeah, they’d have to arrest me first and put me through a trial. Since I hadn’t done anything illegal lately, good luck with that.

I blew out a breath and sat up. Just another two and a half hours and I’d be back in New Orleans to pick up my daughter. All this would be behind me, and I could focus on being a better father than that asshole ever was. I reached to adjust the rearview mirror only to glimpse my father sitting in the back seat. He drew a finger across his neck. Panicked, I spun around to look, but he wasn’t there.

My phone rang, and I almost jumped out of the car with a yelp. Holy shit, Lazarus. You really need a vacation, I thought as I fumbled to answer the phone. “Hello?”

Crackling answered me on the other end. Dammit, why’d they have to build prisons out in the middle of nowhere with no reception? I pulled the phone away from my ear to look at the screen. Full bars. What the hell?

My car radio screamed to life, flashing through stations until it settled on the bridge to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”. I reached to turn it off and paused. The hair on my arms stood on end. “Jean, if that’s you, you’re not funny.”

This sounded like the kind of practical joke the disembodied spirit of a two-hundred-year-old pirate would find hilarious. I waited for him to pop into existence in the passenger seat, doubled over in laughter, but he didn’t.

Let’s try a new strategy. I turned the volume down but didn’t shut it off. “Okay, whoever you are. You should know this isn’t my first time dealing with ghosts and I don’t scare easy. You’ve made the mistake of haunting the wrong necromancer on the wrong day. Unless you want to become my personal ghost pinata, I suggest you buzz off!”

The radio died. My skin quit crawling and the air in the car lightened. Fucking ghosts. I hadn’t seen one in almost three weeks, ever since I’d gotten back from Hell. The last few weeks had been downright boring, present events aside. Figures a ghost would pick that day of all days to mess with me.

I started the car. I hope he got the message, whoever he was.

My phone rang. I picked it up. “Listen, pal. I don’t know who you think you’re messing with, but—”

“Take it easy, Laz!”

Emma, I realized. That’d teach me not to check the caller ID. I rubbed my forehead. “Emma, dammit. I’m sorry.”

“Is everything okay? You sounded kind of tense there.”

“Tense is putting it mildly. It’s been a hell of a week.” I sighed. Between enrolling my three-month-old daughter in daycare, losing my mentor, and now this, I was desperate for some time away. Emma and I hadn’t had as much time together as I would’ve liked since she went back to work, though I was glad she was working again. It was good for her.

“Well, then how about we stay in tonight?” Her voice dipped low, taking on that flirty, sensual quality that made my heart beat fast for all the right reasons. “Put on a movie, order some takeout, cuddle up on the couch?”

I almost groaned thinking about an actual relaxing evening. “You really know how to get a guy worked up, don’t you? Absolutely. I just need to finish up one last bit of work, pick Remy up from daycare, and get cleaned up. You want me to bring anything?”

“Just whatever you think you’ll need to be comfortable for the evening. Which reminds me, I picked up a playpen for Remy, so you don’t have to haul yours with you every time.”

“Remind me to kiss you, you amazing woman. Six?”

“Make it six-thirty. I caught a case today. Lots of paperwork.”

We said our goodbyes, and I got back on the road, headed south. The remaining two and a half hours of the drive would feel like nothing if it meant I got to spend the evening with my two favorite ladies.

This was our third official date. I tried not to read too much into things, but it was hard not to, especially with the way things had been going. She said she wanted to move things slow, which I agreed to. Emma set the pace. But there was an unwritten rule about third dates, especially when they came with the suggestion you stay in instead of going out. Not that I expected her to just hop into bed with me, especially not after all she’d just been through, but a guy could hope. The fact that we’d been dating three weeks now and I hadn’t slept with her once should’ve been a testament to my willpower. After the events of the day, I could use something to look forward to, so I let myself believe that was the direction things would go in.

I decided to hit a chain pharmacy and pick up a few things. Better safe than sorry, right?

The clerk gave me a knowing chuckle when I added diapers to the mix. “You should add some flowers.”

I counted out the bills and shook my head. “Not for her. She grows her own and every other rose is inferior.”

“In that case, I recommend chocolates. Can’t go wrong with imported chocolate.”

I stepped back, scanned the front of the register and grabbed two of the most expensive chocolate bars I could find. “You deserve a raise.”

She chuckled and bagged up the chocolate. “Tell that to my boss.”

I hit traffic going across town, so I turned on the radio and went channel surfing, pausing on a news program. “…Neighbors described John Holzgreif as a caring family man, a dedicated father, and loving husband. Certainly not the type to strangle his two young children and wife to death as they slept before hanging himself. The murder-suicide is the third of its kind in as many days. Police have denied any connection between the slayings, calling it a ‘tragic coincidence.’”

Emma’s voice came on next against the shuttering of camera lenses. “The sad truth is, as we approach the holidays, many people struggling with depression and mental health issues often feel overwhelmed. That’s what we’re seeing here. There is absolutely nothing at any of these crime scenes to suggest these crimes were connected, despite their unfortunate timing. However, if anyone out there has any evidence to the contrary, I encourage them to come forward to the police rather than the press. I also ask that the press let these communities grieve and respect the privacy of these families at such a difficult time. This is not the time for wild rumors and speculation. These deaths have been a tragic coincidence of timing, nothing more. The New Orleans Police Department will not be pursuing them as murder cases at this time.”

Tragic coincidence, huh? I didn’t buy it. When the police went through that much trouble to shut down rumors while asking for help from the public, it could only mean one thing: they had nothing. In my book, that usually meant there was something magic involved. I’d heard the strain in Emma’s voice as she spoke, the stiff way she’d delivered the speech as if she were reading from a prepared statement. Someone higher up was making her say all that. Where there was that much smoke, there had to be a fire.

“What would drive a father to murder his entire family before killing himself?” asked the anchorwoman. “Is this just a case of holiday blues? Or is something deeper going on? Caller number one, this is Tough Talk. You’re on the line.”

I switched the station off. Whatever it was, I could ask Emma about it later. After Netflix and chill. I sighed. What did it say about me that I considered that pillow talk?

Read the rest as soon as it comes out!