Prodigal Son

The Truthseers (Volume 1)

Debra Mullins

Tor Books

CHAPTER ONE
 

The diner had seen better days.
The smells encompassed Rafe Montana as he walked in: fresh coffee and the lingering aroma of bacon, burgers, and fries served twenty-four hours a day. At this hour of the night, fluorescent lighting glared off the red vinyl of the empty booths, emphasizing without pity every rip and patch. A Formica counter stretched the length of the far wall, and a waitress nursed both a steaming cup and a magazine near the coffee machine at the end. She looked up at the sound of his booted feet on the worn tile, her heavy mascara failing to disguise the fatigue in her eyes.
“Getcha something?”
“Sit anywhere?”
“Sure.” She waved a hand in the direction of the empty dining room, then dropped her eyes back to her magazine. “Menu’s on the table. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“Thanks.” He slid into the booth facing the restrooms, on the side where the door would swing toward him. He took a menu from the holder and opened it to block his face. And to give his damn hands something to do so they wouldn’t shake like some rookie’s.
He had to do this. He was the only one who could.
His gut clenched. He kept thinking about the job, tied himself in knots over it. He gritted his teeth, his fingers tightening on the menu before he blew out a deep, slow breath and forced himself to relax. If he wasn’t the one to do this, it would be someone else. And he had to look Jack Needham in the eye to find out the truth.
Literally.
Seeing the truth was just the smallest part of what he could do, along with the way he sometimes knew things, like nuggets of information dropped into his mind by the universe. And he could focus on a person and immediately see that person’s location. If the image was in color, the person was alive. Black and white, dead. All gifts, the family stories said, from some ancient ancestor in Atlantis. He could find anyone, anywhere.
He was a Hunter.
He’d used his power earlier to Hunt Jack. The vision he’d gotten had exploded with color and put his quarry right here in this run-down diner near the Nevada-Arizona border. When Jack came out of the men’s room, he would find Rafe waiting.
And Rafe would know for certain if Jack really was dirty.
When Rafe had first come to Vegas a few years ago, he’d had big dreams about using his truth-seeing gift to play professional poker. But nowadays the players usually wore sunglasses to hide their eyes, and the mojo wouldn’t work if he couldn’t see the eyes. So he went to plan B and became a bounty hunter. After a couple of years as a PI, he’d aced the training, gotten his license, and jumped right in. That’s how he’d met Jack.
His friend. His mentor. Now his prey.
None of these fellas would have any trouble with me if they hadn’t broken the law. They made the choice. Jack’s voice, about mellow as a rusty hinge, echoed in Rafe’s memories even now. How many times had he echoed Jack’s motto? Considered it gospel?
Rafe shook his head. He should have known better than to get caught up in the whole team thing. He was better off alone.
“You made the choice this time, Jack,” he murmured, his throat tight. “You broke the law.”
The restroom door swung open with a creak, momentarily blocking Rafe from Jack’s view. He had five, maybe ten seconds before Jack’s training would have him looking this way.
The door started to swing closed, and Rafe used the resulting squeak to cover the sound of his movements as he slid from the booth. He rose to his feet just as Jack turned his head. Their eyes met.
Rafe gave him a short nod. “Jack.”
“Damn, kid.” The older man swept a quick, assessing gaze over him, his dark eyes sharp. A half smile quirked his mouth. “Long time, no see.”
Yeah, Rafe hadn’t seen Jack in a while and was shocked by the tiny differences in his appearance. Deeper lines around his mouth and eyes in a face tanned by Nevada sun. More gray in his black hair than there used to be. A leaner, hungrier look that made his wiry body appear even thinner and, for some reason, made him look older than his fifty-nine years.
“So, did you do it?”
Jack jerked his gaze up, challenged him with his rigid posture. “Hell, no.”
Lie.
Disappointment unraveled through him, merging with his churning misgivings and promising misery later. “You’ve been taking bribes to let skips go. Willie the Fish. John Allen. Martino Sanchez. And now you blew off your court date to make a run for Mexico.”
Surprise flickered across Jack’s face for just a second, before he squared his jaw and narrowed his eyes. “Where do you get your info, kid? I haven’t even left the state, much less thought about Mexico. And I thought the court date was tomorrow.”
Truth, lie, and lie.
Rafe wouldn’t allow himself to be fooled by the cajoling tone. His powers had never failed him, and he could see the cunning, the calculation, lurking in Jack’s gaze. He’d never thought Jack would lie, not to him. Betrayal sliced deep, shredding any lingering hope with cruel finality. In his book, there was never any excuse for screwing the people you cared about.
In a way, it made the situation easier. With friendship and trust destroyed, now there was only the job.
“The coyote is supposed to meet you here at two A.M.,” he said, responding to the inner prompt that suddenly fed him the information. “You were going to ditch your truck and ride with him to Naco, where he would hand you off to another coyote who would get you across the border.” He shook his head. “Bad plan. I don’t think a guy your height would fit behind the dashboard.”
Jack had stiffened more and more as Rafe laid out the scenario in a calm, sure tone. “You don’t know shit.”
“I know this.” Rafe took out his cuffs. “I know I have to take you in, Jack.”
“Like hell.” All pretense melted away. Jack leaned toward him, pointed a finger. “You don’t know, Montana. You don’t know what it’s like to work for years perfecting skills to get to the top, only to have some punk like you roll in and take it all away without breaking a sweat.”
Truth.
Rafe flinched at the vicious attack. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“What’s the matter, rich boy? You get bored with corporate America? Needed to slum?” Jack took a step toward him, his familiar face a rictus of rage. “I worked my butt off making a name for myself, and then you show up. I decide to be a nice guy, show you the ropes. Then what happens? You start snagging all the good cases out from under me like some goddamn Vegas Mountie who always gets his man. Zero percent failure rate. What the hell? Your rich family got a bunch of PIs on the payroll or something?”
Truth and lies, tumbling over each other like dirty laundry, but Jack believed every word. Of course he’d checked out Rafe’s background, found out about his family. Rafe would have done the same thing. He didn’t discuss his family; he hadn’t seen or talked to any of them in years. That was safer for everybody. As for his success rate, what could he say? Hey, Jack, I have this psychic thing that tells me where all the skips are. Cold crept through him. He’d relaxed too much, used his powers too freely. Just like before. But at least no one had gotten hurt this time.
Lie. Jack had gotten hurt, however inadvertently.
Guilt pinched. But then again, Jack had made the choice to go bad. He could have found another way. That was on him, not Rafe.
“Say something.” Jack opened and closed his fists at his sides. “You ruined me. The money dried up. My girlfriend left me and took my bank account with her. No one wanted to hire me anymore, not for the good stuff. They had me chasing DUIs and deadbeat dads. That’s not me. I’m better than that.” He sucked in a shaky breath. “I had to find some way to survive.”
Rafe gave him a hard look. “By taking kickbacks? C’mon, Jack.”
“You’ll see what I mean.” Jack lifted his chin, glared. “This job burns the hell out of guys like us. A pace like you’ve been keeping? A couple of years from now, when you’re sitting alone in an empty house with your bones aching and all the innocence beaten out of your soul, easy money for looking the other way will seem like salvation.”
“No.” Rafe shook his head. “I won’t let it happen.”
“That’s what I said, too, kid.” Jack gave a hard laugh. “Just wait until some young hotshot shows up and muscles you out of the top spot.” He paused, his lips curving ever so slightly. “Unless you screw up before then. Like you did back in Arizona.”
The verbal sucker punch stole the breath from his lungs. He fought to keep steady. How the hell did Jack know about that? It wasn’t in any public record anywhere.
“Told you I’m good.” Jack narrowed his gaze, studying Rafe’s reaction with apparent satisfaction. “You got no woman, no friends, and a family you turned your back on. All you’ve got is the job, Montana, and when it’s gone, what are you gonna do? What will you have left?”
Nothing. Harsh truth, echoing down to his bones. Looking at Jack, Rafe realized he could be gazing at the reflection of his future self: lonely, bitter, fading into the shadows like some dusty legend.
Is that how he wanted to live his life? Is that how he wanted to go out?
Hell, no. But he had no choice. He couldn’t take the chance of risking any more lives.
Jack had a choice.
“You’re gonna dry up and blow away, just like the rest of us,” Jack sneered. “Better get used to it.” His gaze flitted to the windows, then back to Rafe.
The small movement triggered alarm bells. All it took was a thought, and the Hunter kicked in, showing Rafe a vision of a Latino guy in jeans, blue shirt, and a hat parking his ancient pickup at the far end of the parking lot outside. The coyote sat in the truck, engine running, and lit a cigarette before glancing at his watch. Rafe pushed the image away, focused on Jack.
The job was all he had, at least for now. And he was going to do it.
“Your coyote is here, Jack.” His ex-mentor jerked. Alarm flickered across his face before he masked it. Rafe pushed a little more. “So how long’s he going to wait for you? Five minutes? Ten on the outside?” Seconds ticked by in heartbeats and drips of sweat. “If you want out of this place, buddy, you’re going to have to get through me.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “Fine.” And charged.
Rafe reached for the Hunter, channeling energy through the clear crystal he always wore beneath his shirt. His senses flared into battle mode, adrenaline flooding his system. His eyesight sharpened. His hearing heightened. He met Jack’s attack, shoving him in the chest with both hands. Jack flew back, skidding along the floor and crashing into a booth. His face hit the corner of the seat with a wet smack.
Rafe stalked down the aisle after him. The Hunter prowled in the back of his mind, not satisfied with just a taste. His muscles hummed with the strain it took to keep that side of himself at bay. He didn’t want to hurt Jack if he could help it. He opened up a little more, let some of the raw power ripple along his flesh in a blatant show of intimidation. The crystal grew hotter against his chest. Maybe the old man would pick up the energy and back down.
Jack got to his feet, his gaze calculating as he wiped blood from his mouth. “Not bad, kid.”
“Give it up, Jack. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.”
Jack curled his bleeding lip. “I never run from a fight.”
Stubborn old man. Rafe flexed his fingers, hungry for a little carnage. Taking Jack down was starting to seem like a good idea. Was that his thought, or the Hunter’s? Logic warred with raw instinct. “You won’t win.”
Jack flexed his shoulders. “I got a few tricks left.”
“Yeah?” Rafe opened a little more, let the predator show in the bared teeth of his smile, the narrowing of his eyes. “You haven’t seen all mine yet, either.”
The pickup outside revved its engine. Jack’s eyes widened. Panic flared in his expression, and he whipped out a knife. “Get out of the way, Montana.”
“Can’t do that, Jack.” The Hunter snapped at the leash, smelled the desperation in the air. Wanted to take down the prey—for good.
That would not, could not, happen. He was a civilized human being, damn it, not a wild animal. And blood always cost a price no one wanted to pay.
“I don’t want to hurt you, kid.”
Rafe saw the truth in his eyes. “Yes, you do. What you don’t want is to do time for murder.”
Jack blinked, then shrugged, his mouth curving with scorn. “Got me there. But I’ll take the chance if it means getting out of here.”
Truth.
Him or me. You know he’ll kill you and not lose any sleep over it.
“Sorry, Jack.” With no other choice, he unleashed the Hunter completely, the power surging through the crystal, overwhelming Rafe Montana, making him something different, something other. His mind winked out.…
*   *   *
He came back to himself with a snap, disoriented, worried, a little sick to his stomach. The crystal seared like a brand. How long had it been this time? Seconds? Minutes?
Jack lay on the floor, his face battered. His nose looked broken, blood seeping everywhere. The copper tang scented the air, filling Rafe’s nose and lungs, coating his tongue. Slowly he removed his boot from Jack’s throat, his heart pounding, his labored breathing straining his aching ribs. The knife lay on the floor several feet away.
No, no, not again. Bitter bile rose in his throat. He opened his clenched fists and crouched down, pressed battered, bleeding fingers to Jack’s neck. Nearly keeled over when he felt the steady beat. Alive. He squeezed his eyes closed. Sent quiet thanks to the universe.
Outside, the screech of tires drew his attention. He rose and glanced out the window as the pickup peeled out of the parking lot. He blew out a slow breath and turned back to Jack. He had no beef with the coyote, not today.
A shuffle reminded him he wasn’t alone. He turned to look at the waitress. She froze in her tracks, halfway around the counter with her purse over her shoulder. He didnt need any special powers to read the terror in her eyes.
Damn it. He’d forgotten she was there. He took a deep breath and tried to smile. “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.”
She drew back, wariness plain on her face. “I didn’t see anything.”
“I hope that’s not true, ma’am.” He reached into his pocket.
She screamed and crouched down, covered her head with her arms. “Don’t shoot me! I won’t say anything, really!”
“Hold on, hold on.” He yanked out his ID and held it up. “It’s just my wallet. Look, I’m a bail enforcement agent, and this man is a wanted fugitive.”
She peeked out between her arms, then slowly lowered them as she straightened. “What do you mean, bail enforcement agent?”
He shook his head, blamed Hollywood. “A bounty hunter. This is my ID. I’m one of the good guys.”
She tilted her head, considering him. “A real life bounty hunter, like on TV?”
“Yes. Like I said, I have ID. And my gun is still holstered.”
She gave a cynical laugh. “Pal, from what I saw, you don’t need no gun.”
He ignored the whisper of self-loathing that curled in his gut at the distrustful way she watched him. Very few had witnessed the Hunter in full action, and she seemed a little freaked. But he didn’t know how long Jack would stay out, and his cuffs had slid under the table during the fight. He had to take care of business before the burnout kicked in. Already his legs trembled with the beginning of the reaction.
You never got something for nothing in this world, and the price he paid for full-throttle Hunter equaled total physical shutdown for about twelve hours. He needed to get Jack in custody, and he needed her help to do it … before she had another unconscious body on the floor.
“Look—” He paused, flashed her an expectant glance.
“Vivian,” she offered.
“Vivian,” he echoed with a smile. “This guy is going to wake up eventually. You saw him pull a knife on me, right?”
She nodded.
“He’s dangerous, and I need to get him cuffed so he can’t hurt anyone. You can help me out by calling the cops while I do that.”
She considered for a moment longer, then nodded. “Okay. But you stay over there, got it? I don’t need you doing some crazy ninja moves on me like you did on that guy. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Her voice quivered, and he could see the doubt in her eyes as she remembered what had happened earlier. “I sure hope you’re the good guy you say you are.”
So do I. He smiled, trying to project reassurance. “Thank you, Vivian. I appreciate the help.” He ducked beneath the table and stood up again, holding the handcuffs where she could see them. “I’m going to cuff old Jack here, and you can call the police for me.”
“Guess a bad guy wouldn’t want the police, huh?” She went behind the counter, dumped her purse on the Formica and picked up the phone. Then she paused, her finger poised above the buttons. “So … you got a name or badge number or something I should give them?”
“My name is Rafe Montana.” He grabbed Jack’s arms and snapped the cuffs in place. “And Vivian, make sure you tell them we’re going to need an ambulance.”
“Sure thing.”
As Rafe straightened, the diner tilted, then steadied. He groped for a booth, half fell into the seat. Vivian’s voice seemed to increase in volume as she reported the incident to the cops, though he knew she wasn’t shouting. Then the handset hit the cradle like a sonic boom. The ancient vinyl beneath him creaked like thunder as he started to slump into it. The crystal around his neck faded to warm, then cool.
“Hey, Rafe Montana, you all right?” Her voice scraped like sandpaper over his whacked-out senses.
“No,” he muttered, shading his eyes against the suddenly blinding fluorescent lights. “I’m not.”
Burnout slammed over him.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Debra Mullins