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Seth stared at the boy’s lifeless body. Had he and Danielle had plans for later, after she got off work? Had they been just friends? Or would he have stolen a kiss before saying good night? Maybe she would have given the kiss willingly, and maybe more than one.
Get up! You’re vulnerable.
Did he have parents? Was he one of the popular kids at school? Was he part of one of the smaller cliques you find in any high school in America? Or was he a loner? How many people would be devastated by his death? How many people would mourn him at his funeral? How many days after this one would Danielle cry her eyes out just as she was doing now?
Get up! This isn’t over. There are eight other lives at stake, plus your own.
Seth got up. Yes, there were eight other lives at stake. Only eight. Because with that bullet, Sean Kessler had signed his own death warrant.
He started toward the front door, but Kessler stepped in front of him, barring his path. Icy fury turned his body into a glacial monolith. Nothing was going to stand in the way of him getting what he wanted, especially not Sean Kessler.
“No one leaves.”
“I don’t need you to repeat your instructions,” Seth spoke, his voice and tone controlled by that part of him that had spent a lifetime cultivating the cold detachment required to do his job. “I’m not leaving him there. Show me that you possess the most basic of human decency and get out of my way.”
Seth watched Kessler’s expression change from defiant to cautious. In his head, he counted the seconds ticking by. More than a minute passed before Kessler gave way, and the length of time it had taken him to prove that he was something like human only pushed him closer to his own hour of death.
He went over to Danielle. Frozen in place, she was sitting back on her heels, her knees and calves within the pool of the boy’s blood. The boy’s head was cradled in her lap, her bloody fingers stroking through his hair. As he approached, he saw that the kill shot had been a single bullet to the carotid artery in his throat. Either Kessler was a good shot, or the bullet had missed its intended target. Seth didn’t know if he’d meant to hit the boy or Danielle, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had to deal with the result.
“Danielle,” he started, saying her name in the softest voice he owned. Tears slipped from her eyes and down her cheeks as she looked up at him.
It was a shaky, broken whisper, and Seth’s gut clenched with sympathy. He knelt down beside her and said, “I’m sorry, Danielle. I’m so sorry.”
She looked down at the boy and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead. Her entire body shook with the sobs she tried hard to suppress. “He was…he…he wasn’t supposed to be here. I was going to…but I…” Danielle met his gaze again and she shouted, “He wasn’t supposed to be here! This wasn’t supposed to happen to him! Why did…Why?”
Her anguished grief should have melted the glacial ice that had taken residence in his body, but instead it dropped him into a deeper, subarctic zone. Seth wanted to give her the answers she needed, but even if he had had them to give, nothing would soothe her grief. Nothing would make this boy’s death right.
“What was his name?” Seth asked her in a voice just loud enough for her and only her to hear him.
The tears she’d been valiantly holding back rushed out of her in a torrent. His use of the past tense had snapped her control and though he regretted his lack of foresight, he’d have to excoriate himself for his lapse later. Danielle needed his focus, and he gave it to her unconditionally. Listening to his instincts, he leaned forward and closed his arms around her. Seth didn’t rock her like a child, and he didn’t fill her ears with empty platitudes. He didn’t tell her it was going to be okay because it wasn’t going to be okay. Ever. He said nothing but gave her what he thought she needed most—a safe place to spend her grief.
Minutes passed, and slowly Danielle’s crying eased into silent shudders. Seth sensed movement behind him, and when he looked over his shoulder he found Jules standing beside him. She nodded at him and settled on her knees behind Danielle, her hand settling gently on the girl’s shoulder.
Seth didn’t rush her. He waited for the moment when she pulled away from him, but even then he cradled her head in his hands and looked her in the eyes. “I have to move him, Danielle. When this is done, I’ll make the proper arrangements for him.”
Danielle shook her head in denial. “Don’t…you can’t—”
“I can’t leave him here,” he told her, finishing the sentence she couldn’t. “We can’t leave him here like this, Danielle. You don’t want that for him, and neither do I. We have to do everything we can for him now. Right?”
He watched her swallow hard, forcing down the sobs that threatened to consume her once again. She straightened her spine and nodded once. “Right. You’re right,” she forced out, her voice still shaky but stronger than it had been. “Where will… where will you take him?”
“The walk-in cooler,” Jules answered.
Danielle nodded again. She stroked the boy’s hair one last time, and then she leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss to his forehead. “Forgive me, Gabe,” she whispered. Her tears fell on the boy’s cheeks, and Danielle wiped them away with the sleeve of her shirt, cognizant of the blood on her fingers and unwilling to mar his face.
Gabe. The boy’s name was Gabe.
Leaning in, Seth put his mouth next to Danielle’s ear and promised, “He won’t get away with this, Danielle. I will make him pay for taking Gabe’s life. We clear?” Shifting away from her, he met her gaze with unflinching resolve and waited for her response.
“Yes,” she said, and this time her voice didn’t shake. This time, hard anger surfaced along with the barest hint of scorn. “Yes, we’re clear.”
It was Seth’s turn to nod, and it sealed his promise.
He shifted into a squatting position, and with great care he slid his arms beneath Gabe’s body. Wordlessly, he took Gabe’s weight into his arms and stood. Jules wrapped her arms around Danielle, putting one hand against the back of her head as if to encourage her to look away. Seth paused, once again waiting on a silent cue from Danielle. He waited as she took one last look, and only when she’d turned her face into Jules’ neck did Seth turn on his feet and start toward the back of the bar.
All eyes were on him as he made the slow walk from the front of the bar to the walk-in cooler at the back. Like a general carrying a fallen soldier off the battlefield, Seth kept his eyes forward and cradled Gabe’s body with the care and respect the boy deserved.
Moser followed behind him and pulled open the door. Seth stepped inside and moved to the back of the space. Gently, as though he were putting a baby down for a nap, Seth set Gabe’s body on the cold concrete floor. As he settled the boy’s body, his hands came away sticky with blood. The coppery smell, all too familiar to him, assaulted his nose. Seth stayed there a moment, squatting down beside the dead teenager’s body, staring at his bloody hands.
First Belinda’s. Now Gabe’s. Would someone else’s blood be on his hands before he found a way to end this?
As Seth stared at his hands, he remembered the promise he’d made to Danielle.
Time to get it done, he thought.
Rising to his full height, Seth looked at Gabe one last time. He’d been in the cooler enough times to know that there wasn’t anything at hand that he could use to cover the boy’s body. The only thing he could do for Gabe was bring the man who had taken his life and stolen his future to his knees.
Seth wouldn’t have espoused the eye for an eye mentality as a first option, but he also wouldn’t argue against it being the necessary course of action when the situation warranted. In Seth’s world, too many people who deserved mercy never got it, and those who preyed on others never paid for their crimes.
Sean Kessler would pay for this, and Seth would show him no mercy.
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