Vengeance to the Max
Book 5 in the Max Starr Series
2006 Eppie Finalist!
“Of all the [Max] books, this is the best book she has written yet.”
Enchanted in Romance
“The twists and turns make for a fast-paced and captivating read.”
Her husband has been dead for two years, but Max Starr has never let him go. Now comes her greatest challenge. Was Cameron murdered when he stumbled onto a robbery at the wrong time? Or was something far more sinister going on?
With Detective Witt Long’s helping hand, Max must make the terrifying trip into her worst nightmare. Can Max bury her past and learn to love again, opening her heart fully to Witt? Or will the quest for vengeance take over her soul?
[Previously published in 2005 as Vengeance to the Max by JB Skully from LiquidSilverBooks]
Warning, sexually explicit content
There were many things she didn’t remember, things she didn’t want to, things she’d forced herself to forget for survival’s sake, and things that had simply faded away. This, though, was the one moment in her life she could never forget, that even her will had failed to erase.
It was the moment she would live and relive in her nightmares for all eternity.
She’d parked her car next to her husband’s and now stood with her palm on the handle of the 7-11’s open door, gray metal turned icy by the late October night. The chill rose to numb her arm, traveled to the muscles of her face, and froze the thump of her heart mid-beat.
Inside, five men, including her husband, turned to her, then stilled like the arrested frame of an old movie. Bright florescent overhead lights leached the color from the scene and left their faces ashen. The acrid scent of burnt coffee wafted from the pot on its hot plate. Overdone hot dogs, cardboard hamburgers, and burritos ripened in their warming bins.
A grimace distorted the young clerk’s face as he stood paralyzed behind the counter,.
Her husband, legs spread, knees bent slightly, arms away from his sides like a gunslinger ready for a shoot-out, hovered by a wire stand of snack chips.
Three men, faces hardened by evil intent to a likeness, grouped themselves in huddle formation. The tallest held a gun in twitching fingers.
She would take the image of those faces to her grave.
A scar marred the cheek of the shortest. Slashing down from the ridge of bone to the corner of his mouth, it stretched his lips in a caricature of Batman’s Joker. A tattooed snake coiled on the flexing arm of the second, the one closest to her. Following the fist already bunched, the snake’s bite would kill as easily as the real thing.
And the third. His blond hair brushed his shoulders and long lashes rimmed eyes the blue of a crisp cloudless fall sky. The smile of an angel creased full lips on a face that could have graced a movie screen and fluttered the hearts of teenage girls and old ladies. Except for the gun in his hand leveled steadily at the clerk. And his boots. Scarred black leather and steel toes that could crush ribs with a single kick.
She would remember the scar, the tattoo, and those boots.
The frozen moment, in which she saw everything and felt nothing, ended. The clerk reached beneath the counter. An alarm screeched in the night. The gun exploded, fire flashing from its muzzle. Her husband yelled.
And the gun went off again.
Someone screamed, the pain of it raging in her own throat.
Her husband slid slowly to the dirty linoleum. Bags of Cheetos and Doritos fell to the floor with him and covered him like a blanket.
The sudden profusion of color almost blinded her. The leaf-green of his sweater, bright orange and yellow potato chip bags, the red dot of blood blossoming from the tiny hole in his forehead. Her knees cracked against the floor as if it were concrete. She crawled to him on elbows and knees, then gathered him to her.
His eyes turned from light brown to the deep color of freshly turned earth, and his breath brushed her wet cheeks. When his lips moved, she could only read his final words over the clamor in her ears.
“Find my sister.”
“Head wounds bleed like a sonuvabitch, Max. That wasn’t exactly the way I died.”
How Cameron could speak with so little emotion? Perhaps because he’d been the one who died while she’d had to live with the aftermath these past two years. Live with it, sleep with it, ache with it.
Listening to her dead husband’s unaffected voice, Max Starr curled into a ball in the center of her twin-size bed, wrapping her body around Buzzard the Cat. Her thrashing had terrified the black stray she couldn’t seem to get rid of.
“Not a dream, a nightmare,” she murmured into the warm fur. Cameron could read her mind and invade her dreams, and he was right. The night hadn’t happened that way. She hadn’t gotten close to him, hadn’t held him in her arms as he died, hadn’t breathed his last breath with him or heard his last words.
His killers had hauled her from the store before she’d had a chance to touch him. And he’d been dead before he hit the floor.
Dead but not gone. Not the night he’d been shot. Not for the two years since his corporeal death. Cameron haunted her. Either that or she’d lost her mind. Call it a little quirk she had. Some people kept pictures and mementos. Max pretended her dead husband talked to her. And made love to her.
Max hugged the cat, rubbing her face against fur fragrant with eucalyptus and dirt, the homey scent not quite easing the ache in her bones.
“Dinner at Witt’s mom’s must have given me indigestion,” she said, hoping Cameron would take that as an explanation for the nightmare. Bad enough eating the TV dinner classics that Ladybird adored, worse snuggling up close to Witt on the couch, the worst dreaming about the night Cameron died.
“If you’d admit to yourself that you’re in love with Witt, your problem would be solved.”
“I’m not in love.” Okay, four-fifths in love, but the nightmare brought her crashing back to reality. She wasn’t over being a widow yet. She sure wasn’t ready to fall in love again, especially not with a cop. Besides, Witt didn’t take well to sharing her with another man, even if that man was a ghost.
Cameron’s tone softened, but, relentless, he returned to the original topic. “It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a nightmare. And I never told you to look for my sister.”
Her eyes snapped open. “I thought you couldn’t remember anything that happened when you were alive.” Including the night he died.
“I remember what you remember.” As if their minds were connected, her memories miraculously became his memories. In this case, Max had never forgotten that night. He was right. He hadn’t whispered anything of the kind to her.
“I didn’t even know you had a sister.” God, had they known that little about each other after five years of marriage?
“We knew the important things.”
She blinked, a hint of sappy moisture at the corners of her eyes. Think about the sister, so she wouldn’t have feel or hurt ... “So why do you want me to find your sister?”
An early morning bird chirped in the tree outside. From below came the soft thud of someone getting out of bed. She lived in a second floor studio of a converted Victorian which housed mostly students from the nearby university in the heart of Silicon Valley. Max, at the horrid age of thirty-three, was the oldest tenant, in both age and length of stay, in the building. Pipes clanged and banged around her, probably a shower started by that same early riser intent on some last minute cramming for the upcoming week’s mid-terms. Or was it finals this time of year? She couldn’t remember what hurdle professors threw in front of students during these few days before Thanksgiving.
“You aren’t answering,” she whispered in the dark, searching for Cameron’s glowing eyes. Red sparks in dim lighting was all she ever saw of him, except when she closed her eyes to dream.
“It was your vision, sweetheart. You have to tell me why my sister’s important now.”
She groaned and stretched out flat on the bed, the cat easing against the curve of her waist. She hadn’t missed the use of that dreaded word, vision. “Don’t pull that psychic crap on me. Not about this. Let’s call it a plain old, every-day nightmare.”
“But you know it’s not.”
There was a texture to each of her “visions.” For God only knew what reason, she’d experienced them infrequently beginning soon after Cameron’s death. Three months ago, they’d become a deluge. Tonight’s dream bore the same feel. A mixture of reality and symbolism, the visions she’d had in recent months turned out to be a sort of psychic “dropping in”—some might have called it possession—on someone’s life. Someone who was murdered. Max attempted to solve the crimes in the hopes of exorcising the spirits. The attempts worked. Until the next time.
She sat up in her narrow bed, wrapping her arms around her knees. Buzzard grumbled and scrambled under the covers. “It’s not about your sister.” She knew ... just knew. “It’s about finding them.”
Scarface, Tattoo ... and Bootman.
She didn’t have to say it aloud. He picked the names right out of her head. “My killers.”