Mick Tanner's ability to touch an item and know its entire history made him a hit in the sideshow, but has made personal relationships difficult. The closest one he's ever had is with the uncle who raised him in the carnival. So when members of that community begin to die in mysterious ways, there's nothing he won't do to help.
Chief of Police Lili Bell remembers Mick as a smug pain-in-the-ass, but he's grown up to be a very sexy, fascinating man. And like it or not, she needs his help to figure out the mystery that's plaguing her tiny town. Because this killer has a plan, a motive, and several targets. He's out to right a wrong...no matter how many people he has to kill to do it.
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Fifteen years ago
Sitting in a courtroom, waiting for a stranger to decide his future, Michael Tanner—Mick to his friends, Monstrosity to the old man sitting across the aisle—forced himself to remain still.
He couldn’t give any of them any more ammunition. If the other side convinced the judge that Mick was unstable, he might very well end up in a mental hospital. Someone Mick hated would have complete control over his prospects, his plans, his dreams, and his life, for who knew how long.
He had to act normal. To be normal. Everything was riding on it.
That wouldn’t be easy considering the word normal wasn’t one he used to describe himself. He hadn’t been normal since he lost his parents in a house fire when he was five, and then became the subject of a bitter custody battle. But he could do it. He could convince them.
“You’re doing fine,” a voice whispered. “Just stay calm.”
Staying calm had never been his strength, as the man seated to his right knew. His Uncle Shane, who’d been a father to him during the first few years after his parents had been killed, was now his lawyer. Despite Shane’s loathing of his former profession, he’d donned a suit, covered his many tattoos, removed his piercings and shaved his long beard to be by Mick’s side.
Shane desperately wanted to keep the promise he’d made to his late sister and brother-in-law, and fulfill the wishes they’d expressed in their wills. He’d sworn to keep Mick out of the hands of his rich, paternal grandfather, who had failed at controlling his own son and was trying with the next generation.
Mick knew his uncle had done his best. Unfortunately, after years of legal battles, a gay lawyer who’d run away to join a carnival had been deemed an unsuitable guardian for the heir to the Tanner fortune. For some reason the court thought a sideshow wasn’t an appropriate place to bring up a child, though Mick had been very happy. No matter how Shane had fought, how he’d protested that Mick’s parents’ final wishes should be honored, they’d finally lost the fight.
Mick had been taken to live with the country club set in north Florida. Just him, his grandfather, a few servants, and lots of pain-filled hours.
It had nearly destroyed him.
“Mr. Tanner,” the judge said, addressing Mick directly at last. “Are you fully aware of the point of this hearing?”
He nodded. “Yes, your honor. My grandfather is trying to Baker Act me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. Your grandfather has petitioned the court to remand you to a state hospital for mental evaluation. Your uncle, meanwhile, is seeking temporary custody and family reunification. Do you understand all of this?”
Mick nodded. He got it. He’d gotten it since the day he’d overheard his grandfather on the phone with his lawyer, setting-up this shit-show. Thank God he had, otherwise there might not have been time to get his Uncle Shane here to fight for him.
As for the reason it was happening, well, he understood that, too. His grandfather was worried that with Mick growing up, he’d start fighting back against the abuse and the theft of Mick’s inheritance. Mick might be the beneficiary of a trust fund, but it was in Monty Tanner’s control until Mick turned twenty-one. And Monty would do whatever he could to make sure Mick never got that control. Even if it meant having him committed.
“Very well. We’ve heard from everyone….” Before continuing, the judge glanced at his grandfather, her gaze hard. Not for the first time, he got the impression she wasn’t entirely buying the story the old man was trying to sell. She looked back at Mick, offering him a faint smile. “Except you.”
Mick swallowed hard, knowing how much was riding on this moment.
“Michael, can you explain to the court why you’re wearing those gloves?”
It was the question he’d been dreading, but also expecting. And it was going to take every ounce of strength he possessed to convince her he wasn’t crazy.
“I can, your honor.”
Pausing, Mick lifted his gloved hands and began to unsheathe them. He started with the index finger on his right hand. Pulled it. Then the next. And the next. Until he was able to peel the soft, thin leather away from his skin, exposing it to the chilled air of the courtroom.
He didn’t put his bare hand down. Not yet. God, not yet.
He reached for the other glove. Again, the slow removal. From the corner of his eye, he saw his grandfather smirk and whisper to his attorney, and a bought-and-paid-for psychiatrist, his expression saying he knew what Mick was about to do.
Well, maybe the evil old bastard didn’t know him as well as he thought he did.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” the judge asked, her tone serious and yet kind.
Mick nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
She turned to the plaintiff’s table. “Mr. Tanner, do you support your grandson’s actions?”
The old man’s smirk faded as he pretended to give a shit. “Perhaps it would be for the best. So everyone can see what’s really going on.”
Nobody else in the courtroom might hear the satisfied, predatory tone in the senior Tanner’s voice. But his grandson heard and recognized it. Mick was chilled by it, as he had been from age nine, when he’d been put into his grandfather’s custody.
“Very well,” she said. “Given the claims that have been made in this courtroom about this young man’s delusions, I will allow it.”
Mick forced the word delusions out of his mind, and finished pulling off the other glove.
“You’ve got this,” Shane whispered, knowing that for Mick, the worst was yet to come.
Nodding, he took a breath and slowly lowered both of his hands to the flat table before him. He placed them palms down, every inch of skin connecting with the smooth wood surface.
Instant heat raced through his fingers, into his palms, up his arms, flooding his body.
Memories…Jesus, the memories. They attacked him.
That lying bastard…gonna kill that judge…that juror won’t stop staring at me…bitch thinks she can take my kids…planted evidence…lies…perjury…hung jury…killed her and I’d do it again…blood…can’t go to prison…justice my ass…he’ll kill me if I can’t get a restraining order…God I wish I could take it back….
Cunning inmates calculated how to escape justice for their crimes. Culpable lawyers planned to twist evidence. He felt the grief of parents stripped of guardianship of their children, the rage of ex-spouses planning revenge, the churn of corruption and innocence, tangled together in a web that was impossible to unravel. It was all there, soaked into the wood table, which had been manufactured at a plant in Atlanta, from wood cut in Montana, by a crew led by a man named Edgar. He got it all in a mental blast that probably should have put him on the floor.
He reacted only with a slight tensing of his body. He let his face reveal nothing. He even forced a somewhat convincing smile. And then he pushed against the table, managing to hide his mental anguish, and rose to his feet.
“Can I come up to show you something, Your Honor?”
His voice even sounded steady. He hoped no-one would guess his brain was being ripped into tiny shards and that a thousand voices were screaming in his ears.
Appearing curious, the judge nodded. “Please do.”
His grandfather leapt up, obviously not seeing what he’d expected to see, and barked out, “What’s going on here? What are you trying to pull, boy? Why don’t you tell her what you’re really imagining after touching that table? Your honor, he’s trying to trick you!”
The judge banged her gavel. “Another outburst and I’ll charge you with contempt.”
His grandfather’s lawyer tugged Monty into his seat, whispered fiercely, and then rose to approach the bench as well. His frown revealed his thoughts about the way this was progressing. He had apparently believed Monty Tanner’s story of his grandson’s insanity, and had expected a different outcome too. They’d counted on Mick trying to convince the judge of his strange psychic powers. The men had probably discussed this very moment, picturing Mick reeling from the defendant’s table in shock as his abilities overwhelmed his senses, as they so often did.
But not this time. No fucking way.
Mick reached the bench, Uncle Shane by his side. So did the other attorney, who continued to stare at him, hunting for some kind of reaction to Mick’s hands being exposed to all the sensory input he was trying to deny them. The faintest brush of a finger on the other man’s sleeve could set his senses aflame. Yet he couldn’t reveal the slightest hint to the judge.
The truth might not set him free. So, if it came to it, he was just gonna have to lie.
“This is why I wear gloves, your honor,” he said quietly.
And he lifted his hands to show her.
The judge, so professional and stoic, couldn’t contain her tiny gasp. She stared at his palms, at his fingers, her eyes rounding, her jaw tightening as she tried to control her reaction, which appeared somewhere between shock and anger.
He supposed his hands weren’t his best feature. Even he didn’t like looking at them.
Thin scars ran down the center of every digit, crossing each knuckle. His fingertips were unnaturally smooth, missing layers of skin…handy if he ever decided to become a criminal and didn’t want to leave fingerprints. Circles had been gouged into his palms. Over everything was twisted flesh where second degree burns had left their mark, physically and emotionally.
Some of the burn scars were old, dating back to the night his parents had died. He’d put his hands on a window of the burning house, screaming, before being saved by rescue workers.
The others were new. Very new. Raw and red, the tissue having only recently healed.
He didn’t know if the emotional scars from either trauma would ever heal.
“You cover your hands to.…”
“To hide the scars. They’re pretty embarrassing. And, well, some still hurt.”
True. While the old injuries had burned something strange and paranormal into his flesh, the newer ones had merely hurt him physically. Sometimes the agony of it was enough to make him moan. It had been impossible to wear gloves for weeks after the incident, which had abused him even more. Because a touch of his hand on any seemingly innocent object had the power to torture him mentally.
The judge cleared her throat and sat straighter. “Who did that to you?”
He didn’t hesitate. “My grandfather.”
The other lawyer immediately snapped, “Objection!”
The judge glared at his grandfather, who was rising again, sputtering, his face red and his hands forming into fists. Mick had never been as aware of the old man’s bulk before. Even now, at sixty-one, he was burly and powerful, a bully from infancy, as mean as he was strong. It was no wonder Mick’s dad had cut his own father out of his life when he’d gotten married.
He only wished his parents could have lived longer to enjoy their time with each other. And with him. If the rescue workers had arrived a few minutes earlier, they might have. But only Mick had been taken out of that inferno alive.
“I must be allowed to tell my side,” his grandfather insisted.
Every official in the courtroom—judge, bailiff, court reporter—glanced at Monty Tanner, undoubtedly seeing the big man and comparing him to his grandson with the fucked up hands.
“His accusations are ridiculous,” his grandfather sputtered. “Michael is accident prone! He fell through a window once, that’s where the cuts came from. And then…then….”
The judge looked at the bailiff. “If the senior Mr. Tanner makes one more sound without my permission, please take him into custody.”
His grandfather, glaring fire, crashed down into his chair. His mouth quivered as he defended himself in his mind, but no sound passed his lips. That was almost too bad. Mick would have enjoyed seeing the old man dragged out of here and tossed into a jail cell for a night.
The opposing lawyer spoke again. “Your Honor, this is rumor, inflammatory…”
“Be quiet,” she snapped. “I’ve heard you speak all morning. Now I want to hear from Michael. You can all return to your seats, and we will proceed.”
They did as directed. Only Mick remained standing, slowly pulling his gloves back on under the sympathetic eye of the judge as he prepared to tell his story. He remembered everything he and Shane had discussed about his demeanor. What he should say, how he should say it, from being polite to being lucid. He had justice on his side, and he wouldn’t leave here without giving everything he had to free himself from the shackles in which Monty Tanner was trying to bind him. He didn’t like to lie—didn’t want to—but he would do it to save his own life.
“Michael, are you saying your grandfather hurt you? Did he cause those injuries?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Not a lie.
The judge’s eyes flashed. “Can you tell us why he would do that?”
“Because he says I’m evil.” Also true. “He thinks I killed my parents when I was five.”
Silence in the courtroom, other than a hiss from his grandfather.
“I think you’d better start at the beginning,” the judge said.
So he did, as much as he could. He told her about being orphaned, about being pulled between his mother’s family and his father’s. About his good years with Uncle Shane, who’d tried so hard to protect him and keep him safe.
Then he came to his years with his grandfather. “As soon as I got to his house, he started accusing me of really bad things.” His voice quivering, he added, “He accused me of being responsible for the fire that killed my mom and dad.”
True. All true. The sick old monster had looked into his nine-year-old face and called him the murderer of the two people Mick had loved most in the world.
“He said he was going to cut the evil out of me. He started with my fingertips.”
The judge’s eyes flashed. “Go on.”
“It didn’t stop. The accusations, the cutting. Finally, two months ago, he said he’d fight fire with fire, would burn out the deformity. He held my hands down on two red-hot burners.”
The court reporter let out a tiny sound. Her eyes were shiny and moist.
Mick still hadn’t had to lie. No, he hadn’t admitted that he had supernatural abilities, something he’d learned was called psychometry. He didn’t have to say that he saw things, knew things, could experience past moments, and old memories, with the touch of his hands. That his power—gained the night he’d lost his family—had, in fact, increased exponentially when his grandfather had started trying to cut it out of him.
She didn’t ask if he had powers. So he didn’t have to lie and say he didn’t.
“This is all a complete fabrication,” his grandfather’s attorney said, wearing a look of skepticism. “Fantasies from a very sick young man. He undoubtedly injured himself to try to inflame this court against my client.”
Uncle Shane rose. “Your honor, I have Michael’s medical records. The first injuries—the cutting of his fingertips—were sustained when he was nine years old. Hardly something a young child could accomplish. They occurred one month after he went to live with his grandfather.”
Mick heard the pain in his uncle’s voice, and knew the older man blamed himself for not being able to stop what had happened. Mick didn’t blame him. Nobody was to blame for his grandfather’s evil actions except his grandfather. Not for the first time, he wondered if his own father had suffered similar physical abuse as a child, and if that was why he had always been so tender and affectionate toward Mick.
“Let me see them.” The judge nodded at the bailiff, who retrieved the papers from Uncle Shane. He gave the judge a set, then walked over to hand a duplicate set to the other attorney.
“As you can see,” his uncle said, “the records show six other visits to the emergency room, and include notes from the attending doctors who believed my nephew was being abused.”
The judge glanced at the paperwork, reading for a moment, flipping pages, utterly silent. Then she looked up. “Why wasn’t Child Protective Services ever called in?”
Uncle Shane cleared his throat. “If you’ll look at the top of each page, you’ll see where Michael was treated. It was forty miles from his home—past two other top medical centers.”
The judge read aloud. “Tanner Memorial Hospital.”
It took a millisecond for it to sink into the judge’s mind before understanding—and belief—washed over her face. Her expression told him everything he needed to know.
He’d won. She believed him. Somebody other than Uncle Shane finally believed him.
“I’m prepared to rule on this case immediately,” she said with a hard stare at his grandfather. Although she had to be impartial, there was no missing the dislike with which she eyed him. “Mr. Tanner, your efforts to question your grandson’s sanity, to actually have him remanded to an institution, all to cover up your own physical abuse and keep control over his fortune, are something you’ll have to answer for in another court. Believe me, if it were in my purview, I’d have you taken into custody immediately. I can guarantee that you’ll be hearing from Child Protective Services.”
The old man opened his mouth, his face florid, his whole body rocking with rage. Montgomery Tanner had probably never been spoken to that way in his entire rotten life.
“Go ahead. I dare you.” The judge’s desire to lock him up for contempt was palpable.
The attorney physically held his client down. The millionaire and the judge engaged in a staring contest that lasted a good thirty seconds. His grandfather looked away first.
“The request to remand the minor to the Jacksonville Mental Health Center is denied.”
No mental hospital. Thank God. Mick hadn’t even realized how terrified he’d been of that prospect until she said it. They’d have taken his gloves to cure his “delusion,” exposing him to every bit of history contained in everything he touched. The very idea of being exposed to all those objects, all those things that would be in his path in a hospital for the mentally ill, was enough to actually drive him insane.
He’d never have been able to survive it. His mind would have cracked into a million pieces. He really would have gone crazy, and the doctors would have all they needed to commit him permanently. Which would eventually have killed him.
“As to the counterclaim, the issue of custody of Michael Tanner. I am awarding custody of the minor to his uncle, Shane Wyler.”
Mick allowed himself a smile, and saw Shane smiling too.
“Regarding the minor’s trust fund, I hereby order that a full examination of accounts be conducted by a representative of the court. Management of the fund shall be turned over to a third-party executor.” She offered Mick the slightest, encouraging smile, and then whacked her gavel. “We’re adjourned.”
Mick remained standing, watching as the woman who’d literally just saved his life exited, her black robe swishing behind her.
It was over. He’d won. His grandfather couldn’t hurt him anymore.
“You little bastard.”
Shane stepped in front of Mick, blocking Grandfather, who’d stalked over when the judge exited. So did the bailiff, who put a hand on Monty Tanner’s shoulder. “Step away, sir.”
“You won’t get away with this. I know what you are,” his grandfather snarled.
“You’re never getting near him again,” snapped Uncle Shane. He took Mick’s arm. “I mean it, kid. If I have to move you to Antarctica…he’ll never hurt you again.”
“Thank you,” Mick murmured as he pulled on his gloves, believing every word Shane said and feeling safe for the first time in several years.
He pulled on his gloves, and walked past his sputtering grandfather, ignoring his rage. He’d seen and heard it all before.
“You mark my words! You’ll burn in hell for killing my son!”
Mick froze, surprised he still had the capacity to be hurt by anything Montgomery Tanner said. Someday, he’d get over that accusation. Someday.
For now, though, he could only focus on surviving, day by day, away from the monster who’d enjoyed hurting him. Mick pierced the old man with a stare. “You’ll get there first. Until then, I never want to lay eyes on you again.”
With Shane’s supportive presence, Mick walked out of the courtroom, totally free from the threat of pain, torture, burns and knives. Free from the threat of commitment to a mental institution. Free from the man who’d blamed him for his parents’ death.
He was fourteen years old.
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