CHAPTER FIVE - FREE
Rowan’s breathing ratcheted up and cold sweat washed across his face. He stared down at the edge of the barn. There was a line of darkness versus light. Light from countless cameras aimed right at the door. The press were here. They would have seen his car. Some would have run his plates. They would know it was him. They would know he was on the case. And they would want to talk to him. Interview him. Interrogate him.
His penchant for expensive and rare sports cars was well known--and overly reported on--because when the reporters went beyond his tragic backstory, they discussed him as one of the “Most Eligible Bachelors.” His extreme wealth was fixated upon. Considering how many scumbag rich people he knew, wealth might be the one thing that should rule someone out as “most eligible” for companionship in his opinion. But it wasn’t just them being there already that had his chest feeling tight.
Normally, he dealt with the press with ease. A smile. A quotable quip. A wounded look whenever his past was brought up and he didn’t want to answer. “His face grew grave when we mentioned his sister’s tragic death, and it became clear that he would not speak more on the subject,” was one breathless quote.
He was an expert at disarming them while giving them enough that they felt satisfied. But he was in no way capable of being that distant star right now, because of the body behind him and… Jack.
The victim’s face had been faintly familiar to him. Considering he remembered most everything and everyone, it must have meant he saw this person only briefly. Perhaps. The wounds were familiar, too.
His scar ached and he pressed his left palm against it to tamp down the pain. One of his imaginings had him feeling weak in this place, because it was here that a ceremony had been done to bind people like him. To take his life and power away. To send him back to Hell.
So the fact that his head pounded with an incipient migraine, his skin felt clammy and feverish at the same time, and he could feel every millimeter of his scarred flesh was just his mind playing tricks on him. It wasn’t real.
Everything was fine.
He was fine.
But he wasn’t.
He clutched the front of his chest and sucked in pained breaths. He needed to sit down. He needed to get out of here. He wanted a million locked doors between himself and this place. And brandy. Lots and lots of brandy.
But his mind kept replaying the crime scene. The pale skin broken and peeled away in places where the labyrinth design’s lines drew too near one another. The victim’s parted lips and wide eyes as if the last words had been ones of pleading. The hands pounded in by stakes into the floor. That was new. That hadn’t been done to him and Bella. Labrys’ members had held their limbs down. Did that mean there weren’t enough members here that night to do that?
He blinked and considered this. It was rare to actually see copycats. They mostly happened in television and movies. Most pathological kinks were very personal. The killer got off on what he--and it was usually a male--was doing. Copying someone else’s actions wouldn’t give the same zing.
Considering how long it had likely taken to carve that labyrinth into the young man’s chest--and the screaming he must have done as that happened--the killer had to be into it. But there was an alternative. If it wasn’t kink. If it wasn’t a sublimated sexual need.
Like his father, his mother, their friends… This killer could have believed in what they were doing. Because like his father’s carving, this one had shown no hesitation either. So a copycat seemed unlikely. But a true believer? That would explain everything. So even though Rowan hadn’t seen that particular labyrinth design before, it was consistent with the Labrys’ work.
And then there was the dagger.
The dagger was the same as his own or, at least, nearly so. There was a different wrapping around the hilt. There were different runes on the knife’s blade. But it was definitely Labrys’ design. His scar throbbed again and he grimaced.
Despite what he had said to Jack about how this killing felt different--and perhaps even wrong, on some level--the truth was that it likely was a Labrys’ killing.
So the Labrys had come within 50 miles of his home.
They had been operating on his territory.
And that would not be allowed.
He’d been waiting for this. For them to come close. And now they were. But he didn’t want the FBI underfoot when he dealt with them. But he might need the FBI to find them in the first place.
That meant more time with Jack.
And that was problematic
For, if he were honest, it wasn’t just the victim or the crime scene or the dagger that was causing him to tremble and retreat from the cameras’ lights. Nor his imaginings that this place sapped him of strength. It was Jack. Being near Jack. Feeling his warmth. Seeing his face. Smelling his cologne. Sensing his caring.
He doesn’t care about me! He left! A voice wailed in his mind. And a colder one added, If he knew what I was doing--what I’m now capable of--he would be horrified that he ever cared at all.
Regardless, he was simply too raw and exposed to hide successfully from the press. The cameras with their bright lights would strip him down. The pain and rage that consumed him would be there for all to see. He couldn’t afford that. Not now. Not ever.
But the Speedtail was hemmed in by the press’ vehicles. He wouldn’t be able to get into the car without dozens of cameras stuck in his face. And if he did that, he wouldn’t be able to drive out.
“There’s another way out,” Jack said as if in answer to all of his prayers. “A side door. Right over there.”
His voice was practically in Rowan’s left ear and Rowan hadn’t heard him coming. Rowan spun around. Heart in his throat. Crouched again. Ready to strike. His right hand reached for his own dagger that was no longer there. And he still didn’t know how that had happened or if his strictures as to the FBI’s review would be honored. He was literally, and figuratively, declawed without it.
Jack’s brow furrowed in confusion at his violent reaction. Rowan wanted to curse himself. But he was still taut as a spring. But then Jack’s expression turned to empathy as supposed understanding filled him.
He likely thought Rowan had PTSD. Pity the poor rich boy. He didn’t understand the danger had never ended. The past was not the past. Not until every Labrys’ member was dead and the earth salted over their graves. Rowan was alert at all times. It wasn’t pity that should be extended, but respect that he’d kept himself alive this long.
“That doesn’t help me!” Rowan snarled.
He forced himself to stand up straight and shed some of the obvious tension. Still an annoying tremor went through his right hand. Jack caught sight of it and he almost reached for Rowan, to clasp that shaking hand, and still it. But Rowan saw the moment that he stopped himself and curled his hand into a fist.
But isn’t that what he wanted from Jack? To not touch him? The FBI agent certainly didn’t have the right to comfort him. Rowan would have done more than snarl if Jack had taken his hand. So why did he feel disappointed? More than that… hurt?
“They’ve seen my car,” Rowan ground out. “I’m trapped here until they leave!”
Trapped here with you! Trapped here with this boy that could have been me! And there’s no one and nothing to comfort me now! You took that from me, Jack!
“I’ll get you out of here. My SUV is parked outside the side doors. Tinted windows. And there’s a back road we can go down,” Jack offered. “They won’t know it’s you.”
Hope warred with rage in Rowan’s chest. Hope, because he could escape. Hope, because he would have time to compose himself and face the onslaught that was coming and no one would know the mess he was at this moment. Hope, because Jack was still trying to save him.
It’s a farce! A fraud! He doesn’t care about me! Not enough!
It had been hard enough to be this close to the other man in the open air. Now to spend time with him in a car for close to an hour? Alone? Just the two of them? With the silence thick as molasses around them? That would only continue this torture.
Seeing him hesitate, Jack continued, “Your car wouldn’t make it out the back way. Not paved. Just hard packed earth. So we need to take mine.”
Rowan grimaced. He loved the Speedtail, but it was not for off-road driving. He could insist on going out to it and then running down the reporters in the road. Except their vans were there. He couldn’t get past those, too. So he really had no choice unless he wanted to face the press. And he just couldn’t. Not right now.
“I could ask Hemi to drive you. Or someone else,” Jack offered with reluctance, or that’s what Rowan placated himself with thinking.
Do I still want him to regret leaving me? Do I want him to realize how wrong he was? How much he missed? Evidently, yes.
“Oh, no, Jack, the least you can do is drive me home,” Rowan stated.
So we can suffer together.
“I’ll ask Hemi to drive the Speedtail to your place later,” Jack offered as he stepped around Rowan to go outside.
“Hemi can’t fit in the Speedtail. Olivia will handle it,” Rowan said. He couldn’t call her now though. He kept no phone with him during missions after all.
Jack grinned. “You’re likely right at that. Stuffing the big guy in there wouldn’t be fair. But I still do need to tell him the plan.” He tossed the keys to his SUV to Rowan. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Then Jack was turning and striding off in that powerful, graceful way of his. Rowan felt a stabbing sensation in his chest and almost reached out to the FBI agent. Jack was walking away--even with the promise he’d be back--and it hurt. Hurt like hell.
He’s already walked away for good.
Rowan gripped the keys and strode to the small side door, keeping to the taped clean area. But his eyes went to the victim one last time. He slowed then stopped. The young man stared sightlessly up through the opening in the roof at the everlasting sky. A glimpse of the freedom he would never have again. A taunt.
The urge to go over and pull the dagger from the young man’s chest was so strong that Rowan had to grip the keys tighter in his hand. That had been Bella. That could have been him. Was this victim as confused as he and Bella had been when they’d been accused of being Dark Ones? Had he pleaded with the killers that he wasn’t? That they were mistaken? That whatever crime they thought he had committed wasn’t true?
For a moment, Rowan remembered his father’s handsome face above his when he’d first placed the dagger against Rowan’s skin. There hadn’t been hate in his father’s eyes or expression. He hadn’t even looked like he’d been disassociating himself from Rowan. He’d seen Rowan as he’d carved. He’d known it was his son that was screaming because of him. But he’d never even hesitated.
Who did this to you? Rowan thought as he touched his scar through the shirt. I will find out. I will end them. But it won’t bring you back. There is nothing beyond this life but becoming food for the worms.
He felt that if he did take that dagger from the young man’s chest, the victim would be freed somehow. He actually took a step towards the corpse. But he stopped himself, right at the tape line.
What am I doing? Dead is dead. Gone is gone. There is no God above or Devil below.
He turned away swiftly and exited the door to the barn. Immediately, cold wind flowed over him and the smell of death was washed away. He closed his eyes and stood there under the moon.
His scar had stopped aching the moment he had left the barn. He breathed and felt the moonlight cover his skin. His arms lifted slightly from his sides. He was free. He wasn’t pinned like a butterfly in the barn. His labyrinth was not closed.
A faint crunch of gravel had his eyes opening. He already knew who it was. It was Jack. Now that he was free of the crime scene, he had more control over himself. Jack stood three feet from him, brows beetled, chewing his lower lip, eyes full of concern. But he said nothing. What was there to say? They had fifty minutes to find out.
Rowan hit the unlock button. There was a beep and a thud as the door locks disengaged. The lights flashed for a moment as if the SUV were waking up after a long nap. He tossed the keys to Jack and got into the passenger seat.
It was a Ford Explorer, newer model, black exterior and interior. There were redwells filled with papers filling the back seat. A duffel bag that smelled faintly of male sweat told him that it was Jack’s gym bag. A half finished pack of bottled water resting next to it.
Jack settled himself into the driver’s seat. He pressed the ignition button and the SUV rumbled to life. This wasn’t a Speedtail or even a luxury brand SUV, but it was comfortable. Hemi and Jack--both big men--could fit in it with ease. The fact that Jack didn’t have to adjust the seat told him that Jack still liked to be the one driving. Only with Rowan had he released that privilege.
The headlamps showed him that there was a winding gravel and dirt road ahead of them that snaked towards a main street. The Speedtail would have never made it. Rowan settled back and rested his head against the headrest.
Most people would have worried that they were taking Jack away from the scene he was investigating. He likely was. But Jack had determined that driving him home was more important than being here so Rowan wouldn’t worry about it.
“You bought the penthouse in North Star Tower, right? That’s where you want to go?” Jack asked as he slowly negotiated the way over the rutted road.
“Yes, I spend most of my time there. It’s near the university,” Rowan answered and grimaced.
That was too much information. He should have just said “yes” and been done. But it was interesting that Jack knew where he lived now.
“Do you still own--”
“I haven’t sold any of the properties, Jack. Not even Aldweather,” Rowan cut him off. “They’re useful. As investments. But I wanted a fresh start. New life. New me.”
Jack grimaced slightly. He was likely thinking that the home they had stayed in together was now an “investment property”. As if Rowan would let anyone in there. It was maintained perfectly. No one touched it. Like Aldweather. He would die before he’d have either violated. But Jack didn’t need to know that.
“I wish you could have a wholly new life and for this to be done,” Jack murmured.
“Stop thinking that this crime scene has raised up spectres that weren’t already there,” Rowan said shortly. He hated Jack looking wounded for him. “I have never believed this was over, Jack.”
“But you still think this was a copycat?” Jack pressed.
Rowan flattened his lips. “I don’t know what it is. There are aspects that could go either way.”
Jack let a breath hiss through his teeth and nodded at this concession. They drove in silence for a time, but Jack kept looking over at him then back out the windshield. Finally, Rowan couldn’t take it.
“What? What is it?” Rowan asked brusquely.
“I want to know if this is too hard--us working together--and if it would be better…” Jack’s lips drew back from his teeth as if the words were pulled out from him, “if Hemi was your contact.”
Rowan let a beat of silence fall before he whirled around in his seat. “Want to run away from me again, Jack?”
Jack’s head snapped towards him. Eyes wide. “What? No! I just thought that you would be more comfortable if--”
“No!” Rowan roared. The word echoed in the car. “You will not use me again as an excuse for your own actions!”
“Yes, it is, Jack!” He felt like he was bleeding as he said these words. “You used my youth as an excuse for ending our relationship when you just wanted out! You’ll be held back, Rowan, from having a full life! You need to go to college and have that experience, Rowan! You can’t be tied down to someone ten years older than you, Rowan! You’ll appreciate what I’ve done when you’re older, Rowan!”
Jack winced at every statement. They hadn’t been so bald and barren when Jack had said them originally. He couldn’t reproduce the choked way that Jack had said them as if he hadn’t wanted to. As if he was being forced to say them. Or so Rowan had told himself in the years since. But what if he had imagined that? Or misunderstood the real emotions that had been propelling Jack to leave him?
“You’re right that I--that I used those as reasons, but they weren’t the full reasons I had to leave,” Jack said. His hands were so tight on the steering wheel that his knuckles were white.
“Had to leave?” Rowan let out a bark of laughter. “Was someone putting a gun to your head? Was someone showing you the door? Why won’t you just admit that you left because you wanted to leave?”
Jack’s head snapped towards him. “You can’t believe that.”
Rowan frowned. “Why not? That’s why people leave. They don’t want to stay. They don’t want to be with the person anymore--”
“I wanted to be with you! Always.” The steering wheel squeaked under Jack’s hands.
“Then who was stopping you?”
“Me. I was the only thing stopping me.” Jack shook his head.
Rowan shook his head. “You’re making this into something more than it was. I stopped being interesting to you. You didn’t want a little boy--”
Jack laughed then. A bitter, horrid laugh. “You stopped being interesting to me? You a little boy? Fuck, Rowan, you talk about me deceiving myself about the past?”
Rowan settled his back slightly against the door. His eyes hooded. “I used to think all sorts of romantic things about why you left, Jack. That you truly loved me, but you were forced to go. It was absurd. I stopped thinking those things long ago so if you intend for me to believe in fairy tales again, you need a hell of a good story to convince me.”
“I’m not doing this in the car,” Jack said.
“We have an hour to kill so--”
“No, Rowan.” Jack turned and gave him one of those commanding stares. Not weak. Not mild. But one of the ones that had always stopped Rowan in his tracks.
“You don’t get to decide when things are done, Jack. I’m not eighteen any more--”
“And you didn’t let me boss you around at eighteen either. You were in charge when you exited the womb, Rowan.” Jack laughed softly. “I give into you about many things, let you have your way, but not about this. Not about… this.”
“If you think that anything you say can hurt me anymore after ten years, you’re delusional!” Rowan coiled in his corner as if ready to spring.
“I can’t drive and bleed, Rowan,” Jack said.
Rowan blinked. “Bleed?”
“Talking about this is like bleeding out,” Jack murmured and he grimaced. “So no, I won’t discuss it in the car.”
“Will you ever?” Rowan’s voice went high for a moment. Like a child’s.
Jack ran a hand through his thick, dark hair and Rowan wished he could do that. He remembered its texture and smell and everything. He knew every inch of Jack’s body.
“I’m not good for you,” Jack said finally. “No matter what I want… I’m not good.”
Rowan’s eyes narrowed. “Jack, you’re… you’re a good man. One of the best.”
Jack swallowed, but did not agree with him. “I can see that you’re still hurting. Don’t deny it.” Rowan had opened his mouth to do just that. “And I am more sorry than I can say. I hoped the damage I had done would… end. But you’ve carried it with you.”
“I’ve moved on,” Rowan lied.
“Just like I have.” Jack gave him a thin smile.
The road was nearing the house that Rowan had glimpsed from the barn. Despite himself, Rowan found himself focusing on the new white Ford F-150 pickup in the driveway and comparing it to the lack of upkeep of the rest of the property.
“Anything I tell you, Rowan, you’ll have an answer to. But I know, in my heart, that I can’t--”
“Stop, Jack!” Rowan commanded.
Jack’s expression became wretched.“Please let me tell you. I--”
“No, Jack, stop the car!” Rowan commanded.
Jack stepped on the brakes. The SUV skidded forward a few feet, but then stopped. There was a fork in the road directly ahead of them. One way going towards the house and the other towards the main road.
“Look.” Rowan pointed to the house.
Jack looked annoyed, but turned his head in the direction Rowan pointed. His annoyance disappeared and a grim look settled on his handsome features. “Awfully nice truck for such a run down place.”
“Yes, and the lights are all on. They’re awake,” Rowan pointed out.
“Did you see the curtain twitch?” Jack asked.
“I know you said that you had people going to talk to them--”
“Let’s do it ourselves. Let’s do it now,” Jack said.
Without further discussion, Jack turned the SUV down the road towards the home that despite all of its lights being on seemed dark to Rowan.