The Judas Game (Shepherd #4) by Ethan Cross
ISBN: 9781611882346 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781943486953 (ebook)
ASIN: B01HOV0GJC (Kindle edition)
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Publisher: Fiction Studio Books | Story Plant
When a correctional officer climbs to the top of his watchtower and opens fire on the inmates and guards, federal investigator Marcus Williams and serial killer Francis Ackerman Jr. must join forces again to unearth the truth behind the incident. What they find is a serial killer using the prison as his hunting grounds. But the Judas Killer’s ambitions don’t end with a few murders. He wants to go down in history and has no reason left to live. With Ackerman undercover among the inmates and Marcus tracking down the mastermind on the outside, the team must learn the identity of the Judas Killer and stop a full-scale uprising that he’s orchestrated. But the more they learn about what’s happening at the prison and why the more enemies they must face. From inside the overrun facility, Marcus and Ackerman must save the hostages and stop an elaborate escape attempt while trying to determine how a rival corporation, the leader of one of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations, and an inmate with no identity only known as Demon fit into the Judas Killer’s plans. Launching a bold new cycle of novels featuring The Shepherd Organization, The Judas Game is searing, mesmerizing fiction it’s Ethan Cross at his very best.
Read an excerpt:
As he climbed the ladder of Tower 3, a strange memory struck Ray Navarro. It was of his son. Ray had been sitting on their front porch after finishing the mowing, and a green blur had come zooming down the road. His little boy, in a bright green T-shirt, running full blast, and tugging along their cocker spaniel puppy, the dog’s legs struggling to keep up with those of his son, Ian. A son he would probably never see again.
As Ray placed one hand in front of the next, his wedding ring kept clanging against the metal of the rungs. The echoes of metal on metal trickled down the concrete walls of Tower 3 like water. Each high-pitched sound sent shockwaves of regret and doubt down through Ray’s soul.
He felt like the world was upside down, and he was actually climbing down into hell instead of ascending Tower 3 at Foxbury Correctional Treatment Facility.
The prison was actually an old work camp and mental hospital, which had recently been recommissioned as part of a pilot program for a private company’s experimental prison. All of the guards, including himself, had been warned about the unique working conditions inside Foxbury. The program was voluntary. He had known the risks, but the money was just too good to pass up. He had bills to pay and mouths to feed.
Ray Navarro pushed open the hatch in the floor of the crow’s nest and pulled himself up into the ten-by-ten space of the tower. The little room smelled like cigarettes, even though no one was supposed to smoke up there. A tiny window air conditioner squeaked and rumbled in the tower’s back wall. He shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. The gun case was bolted to the left wall of the crow’s nest. With almost robotic, instinctual movements, he watched himself unlock the case, grab the 30-06 rifle, and insert cartridges loaded with just the right mixture of chemicals and shrapnel, fire and steel, needed to blow a one-inch hole in a person’s flesh. He had always excelled in the use of high-powered, long-range weapons. A pistol and a tactical shotgun also occupied the tower’s gun cabinet. He was rated as an expert in their use as well, but he had taken to the 30-06 like a boy’s hand to a well-oiled baseball glove.
Ray Navarro extended the rifle’s bipod and started searching the prison yard for his first target.
The scope’s line of sight slid effortlessly over each man’s face. He noticed a pair of the prison’s celebrity inmates. Leonard Lash, the infamous gang leader awaiting execution, and Oren Kimble, the madman responsible for a mall shooting five years ago. Then his eye stopped on two of the guards moving along the perimeter of inmates like cowboys watching over the herd. The men seemed to be having an in-depth conversation, a wiser silver-haired mentor teaching a younger pupil. He knew the older black man well. Bill Singer was a war veteran and a former sniper, just like Ray. When Ray returned from his last tour, he had been lost in doubt and fear and hadn’t known where to turn. Until he had met Bill. Now, Ray Navarro was five years sober and had even patched things up with his wife, who had come very close to being an ex-wife before Bill had started counseling him.
Bill wasn’t supposed to be on duty until Sunday, but something must have changed because there was his friend giving what seemed to be a mini-sermon to his younger counterpart.
The younger white man beside Bill, Jerry Dunn, had just come on with them. Jerry walked with a catch in his gait which made it seem like three of his steps were equal to two of a normal man’s, but that wasn’t the only aspect of Jerry Dunn which had earned him the nickname “Gimp” among his fellow correctional officers. Jerry also blinked about four times more than a normal person and often struggled to spit out more than a sentence or two.
Ray had no problem with Jerry and even felt sorry for the way many of the other guards treated him. A minor limp and a few tics didn’t mean that Dunn couldn’t do his job and, by all accounts, the young CO was more than competent.
Ray prayed that the next person up the tower’s ladder after him wouldn’t be Bill Singer or Jerry Dunn. Although, he didn’t really want it to be anyone else either. It was one thing to kill enemy soldiers or even an inmate if there was no other choice. This was different. This was the outright murder of men who were his coworkers, his friends.
Ray threw up all over the floor of Tower 3.
He cursed under his breath and then said, “It’s them or you.”
He re-acquired his target. Slid the crosshairs over the man’s heart and then up to his head. Normally, he would go for the chest, a larger target capable of accomplishing the same task. But since this was quite possibly one of his very last acts on the planet, he figured there was no harm in showing off and going for the true killshot.
“It’s them or you.”
He kept repeating that phrase like a mantra, over and over.
“It’s them or you.”
Bill Singer watched Jerry limp along in front of him. The more he watched, the more he noticed that the limp didn’t seem to slow Jerry down a bit. Bill realized that from Jerry’s perspective each step may have been painful or at the very least require twice as much effort. At his age, Bill realized the importance of pain management and the economy of movement, the debts that needed paying for each step, each incorrect dietary choice, each year with no trips to the gym, each time you tried to do something that you did easily ten years ago.
Knowing the difficulties faced by Jerry having been forced to start his life with inherent setbacks in that arena, Bill felt a soft spot for the kid and had taken the younger guard under his wing. Bill and his wife had neglected to have children, but he considered himself blessed to have some young men he had mentored who had become like sons to him. Jerry Dunn was one of those adopted sons. Another was Ray Navarro, who Bill knew was on overwatch in Tower 3 at that very moment. Then there were several others whom he had met through his volunteer work down at the clinic with his wife, Caroline.
Jerry Dunn actually reminded Bill more of one of those counseling patients than a correctional officer like Ray Navarro. Jerry was a wounded orphan while Ray was a wounded warrior. Both real problems that were no fault of either man, but whose differences were evident in each man’s demeanor.
Jerry had shared his story around a table of hot wings and beers on the first night Bill met him. The kid had blinked ten times and twitched twice before explaining that his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was only eight months old.
Some of the others had sympathized but continued to mock Jerry behind his back. And, of course, there were a few assholes in the group, who referred to Jerry as Gimp even to his face. Bill had gone a different way. He had befriended the young officer quickly and learned that whatever its cause, Jerry lived with a lot of pain in his heart.
Jerry Dunn halted his half-gait mid-stride and turned on his heels to face the yard. Bill shook his head at the younger man’s appearance. Jerry’s shaggy, black, stick-straight hair hung over his ears and looked as if it hadn’t been combed in days. Jerry’s skin was as pale as Bill’s was dark, and it had a certain smell about it. A mix of body odor and a cheap deodorant that acted as a substitute for bathing.
Jerry said, “I’m bored senseless. Let’s make a bet. I bet you two bucks that the two big Aryan brotherhood type guys right there. See them, one benching a million pounds and the other spotting him and looking disinterested. I bet you two bucks that the big guy doesn’t get it up and the smaller guy either makes fun of him about it or he barely even notices that the big guy dropped the thing on his chest.”
Bill followed Jerry’s gaze and shook his head again. This time at the younger man’s assessment of the situation. Bill said, “I’ll take that bet, but let’s make it twenty bucks.”
Jerry seemed worried by this raising of the stakes, but not worried enough to keep from saying, “You’re on.”
Bill let his gaze linger on the ABs and watched the scene play out just as he suspected it would. The bigger man dropped the bar, but his spotter didn’t even let the bar touch the other man’s chest before snatching it up onto the rack.
Bill said, “The spotter wasn’t looking away because he wasn’t paying attention. He was looking away because he was scanning the yard for threats.”
“But they don’t need to do that here. There are no physical threats.”
Crestfallen, Jerry continued along the perimeter, and Bill followed in step beside him.
“This group of one hundred,” Bill said, referring to the first wave of prisoners being transferred to the refurbished and repurposed Foxbury prison, “has had to form bonds quickly in order to maintain their dominance when the next wave hits. I know we’ve only been here a few months, but I’m shocked that no one has been killed yet. This new ‘experimental model’ gives these guys way too much freedom.”
As the bigger Aryan rose from the bench and took his place as spotter, the two locked fists, held the embrace for a breath, and released each other with a final squeeze of the shoulder. A strangely intimate public gesture that stretched the limits of the physical contact allowed at Foxbury. They may have even felt the jolt of a warning shock. Maybe that was the point. To bond through a little shared pain.
“It’s in their nature to join together into packs. They’re a group of hungry wolves thrown into a pen. The laws of nature take over. They’re going to gang up and start establishing bonds and hierarchy. I don’t care what they claim about this software and technology and cameras. It’s nature of the beast out here. Always has been, always will be. Someone’s going to get this place’s number. There isn’t a security system in the world that can’t be bypassed. If one guy’s smart enough to design it, then there’s another guy out there hungry enough to bypass it.”
“So far, it seems to be working. I think it’s a glimpse of what the prison of the future could look like.”
“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid just yet. It’s only been six months, kid. Trust me. ‘So far’ doesn’t last that long.”
Bill glanced back at the big Aryan, now standing solemn guard over his comrade like a stone sentinel.
Then Bill watched the big Aryan’s head split down the middle. He saw the blood a heartbeat before he heard the crack of a high-powered rifle.
A millisecond of held breath followed the first man’s death. A fraction of a heartbeat when the fight or flight instincts of every inmate twitched toward fight. After all, these men were all fighters in one way or another. It made time seem frozen somehow.
Then everyone, all at once, realized what had happened. The inmates dropped to the ground, as they had been taught, and the guards struggled to keep their wits.
Bill analyzed the situation, years of training and drills all floating to the surface of his personal sea of memories. The training kicked in and won the battle over his instincts.
An inmate must have been putting the life of a guard in danger. That was the only reason a tower guard would have opened fire. His gaze had just enough time to slide over the yard, searching for what he had missed, when the second shot rang out.
This time one of the inmates with his belly to the ground jerked wildly and then lay still, a spray of blood splattering the man to his left.
Bill tried to work it out. Why would a tower guard shoot an inmate lying on the ground?
Unless this was something more.
An entirely different set of training and drills took over—from before he became a correctional officer, from back when he was a young army recruit—and those military-issued instincts helped Bill immediately recognize what this really was. A sniper attack. They were under assault.
“Everyone up!” Bill screamed. “Get inside the buildings. Get to cover!” The throng of prisoners scattered as they scrambled to find protection. The sound of a third shot spurred their legs to pump harder.
Bill didn’t see the third man fall, but he did see from where the shot had originated. He had looked to the towers and walls first, scanning for the shooter. And up in Tower 3, he saw a man who looked like Ray Navarro, eye to his rifle, lining up another shot.
The yard was, looking down from above, the shape of a giant stop sign. Guard towers topped four of the outer vertexes. The safety of the prison’s main buildings was in the distance to Bill’s left. But Tower 3 and the sniper who had become like a son to Bill was closer on the right.
Safety or friendship.
When Bill had served his tour of duty, he had learned and believed that it was all about the man on your right and on your left, your brothers.
Safety or friendship.
Saving his own ass or trying to keep his friend from being killed. The decision was an easy one for Bill Singer. Not even a choice really. Just another instinct; a natural result of all he’d learned and experienced.
He ran toward Tower 3.
Access to the outer perimeter of the yard and the guard towers was made possible via a barred gate in the old stone wall. The problem was that the gate was actually more modern than its surroundings, and it had no locks or keys. It could only be opened by one of the watchers—the name the guards had bestowed on the computer techs who constantly monitored the prison’s thousands of cameras through some kind of special software. Amid the chaos of the yard, among the disorder of one hundred men running for their lives, one of those watchers would have to notice him and buzz him through the gate.
It was a long shot. Not to mention that he had to put himself squarely in Ray’s crosshairs—if that really was Ray up there—just to reach the gate.
The Ray he knew would never fire on him. But the Ray he knew would never fire on anyone. If it really was Ray, then it wasn’t the Ray he knew, and he had no way of anticipating the actions of this robot that had taken Ray’s place, this creature that seemed to walk in Ray’s skin.
Bill wasn’t really surprised to see a pair of the other guards having the same idea. A pair of energetic thirty-something guards who Bill knew as Trent and Stuart were already pounding their fists on the shiny aluminum gate and shouting up at one of the prison’s legion of cameras.
To his surprise, Bill was still twenty feet from the gate when he heard the buzz and clank of the lock disengaging. Big brother was watching. The other pair of guards pushed through and ran out of his view, but he knew where they were headed. He shot a glance to Tower 3 as he ran toward the now-open gate.
Ray had disappeared from the tower’s window. Whether the shooting was over or Ray was just reloading, Bill couldn’t be sure, but he did know that things would go better for his young friend if he was the first one up that ladder.
Bill shouted at the other guards to wait, to let him go up first, but he was so winded from the sprint across the yard that he couldn’t make the sound come out with as much force as he wanted.
The younger guards didn’t stop their assault. “Wait!” he shouted. The thought of Ray attacking the guards and escalating the situation spurred him forward, pumping his adrenaline to the next level.
Bill caught the gate before it could swing shut and relatch. He rounded the corner of the wall toward Tower 3 and looked up just as the parapet of the tower exploded in a searing ball of glass and fire.
The concussion wave slammed Bill to the ground like a swatted fly. Blackened and flaming chunks of concrete rained down around him. He looked back at Tower 3, and his eyes struggled to regain focus. The midday sun hung in the sky directly behind the watchtower. It looked to Bill as if the sun had simply absorbed the parapet of Tower 3 like some giant fiery PAC-MAN. He held his gaze into the sun just long enough to see that the tip of Tower 3 was gone, as if the crow’s nest was the top of a dandelion blown away and scattered to the wind, there and then not.
He was still disoriented by the blast wave. His vision blurred and then came back into focus. Blurred and focused. Then, through the haze, Bill saw Ray Navarro stumbling toward the opening in the stone wall, heading back to the main building.
It was Ray. Bill was sure of it. Not some impostor or impersonator, but his friend. Had the kid completely snapped?
If something was happening in Ray’s life that could have driven him to this, then Bill had no clue what it could have been. Maybe the kid had some kind of PTSD flashback? He couldn’t have been in his right mind.
Bill’s hearing suddenly returned. One second, it was a high-pitched ringing, a shrill otherworldly sound. Then the sound quickly merged back with the real world. The screams brought Bill back to the moment. He crawled, then stumbled, then ran toward the sound of the screaming. One of the men who had beaten him to the tower was on fire. He didn’t see the other.
The man, or more of a boy to Bill’s old eyes, rolled feebly on the ground to smother the flames. Bill could smell the man’s flesh cooking. It reminded him of sizzling bacon.
Bill shoved his hands through the flames to get to the boy. Just enough contact with the fire to singe off all the hair on Bill’s arms, but also just enough contact with the boy’s torso to shove him into a full roll.
He helped extinguish the last of the flames and then rolled the kid onto his back. His face was charred. He couldn’t stop crying and coughing. And Bill could think of nothing he could do to help.
The sound of boots crushing sand and gravel announced the arrival of more guards. One pushed Bill back and started performing CPR on the burned man.
Bill hadn’t even noticed that the kid had stopped breathing. He felt suddenly disoriented, as if he had just woken up from a bad dream, and his mind was struggling to realign with reality. All he could hear was the ringing, and it seemed to be growing in volume, swelling toward a climax.
He bent over and threw up. What could Ray have been thinking? Had he seen Ray heading back toward the prison? Had that been real? If so, where was Ray going? Had his young friend done this and then was trying to sneak away in the confusion?
Bill ran back toward the gate. The other guards shouted something about needing help, but Bill ignored them. He moved with a singular focus now.
One emotion drove him forward. Anger. One thought fueled his anger. That could have been me.
If Ray had premeditated this—and he obviously had, because he must have brought some kind of explosives with him and had at least some semblance of an escape plan—then that meant that Ray had no way of knowing who would have been the next person through that hatch. It could have been anyone. It could very easily have been Bill.
A few steps closer or a few seconds faster, and it would have been him.
His friend had nearly taken his life; he had nearly taken him away from Caroline.
That didn’t sit right with him and, at the very least, he was going to find out why.
The yard was almost evacuated, and Bill couldn’t miss Ray moving toward the north barracks.
He lowered his head and ran harder, trying to close the gap between them.
Ray didn’t look back, didn’t check over his shoulder once. As if not looking at the destruction he had caused would make it less real, less horrifying. As if guilt and shame wouldn’t catch him if he refused to acknowledge them.
The anger fueled Bill even more—the anger awakened something in him. Something that he hadn’t felt since his army days. He could still smell the young guard’s burning flesh. He could still hear his screams.
He closed the last of the gap in a dive, driving his shoulder into Ray’s back and sending them both sprawling onto the concrete of a basketball court.
Ray was first to his feet. He held a Glock pistol, probably stolen from the gun cabinet of Tower 3.
“Stay back,” Ray said.
“What have you done?”
“I said stay back!”
Bill’s voice cracked as he took a step toward the man he had spent countless hours counseling and guiding back toward sanity.
“Back,” Ray said, retreating toward the barracks.
“You tell me why!”
“I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Glad I’m okay? I could have been killed. And what about the others you just murdered?”
“I can’t. . .” Ray shook his head and turned to run.
Bill stared at him a moment, dumbfounded.
It looked like the Ray he knew. The voice was the same. The look in his eyes. But the Ray he knew would never have done something like this. Did he have the capability? Sure. Ray was a former soldier. He had killed in combat. This was different. This was the visceral act of an animal with its back to the wall. This was the final attack of a dying predator.
What could have possibly driven Ray to such a desperate, animalistic decision?
Ray had taken three big strides toward the barracks before Bill made up his mind that Ray Navarro wasn’t leaving the yard.
Bill closed the distance between them in two huge strides. He threw all of his weight and momentum into a single blow. He hurled himself at Ray like a locomotive of flesh and bone. He aimed one huge punch directly at the back of Ray’s head. He would hit Ray hard with one sucker punch that would instantly knock him out. The fight would be over before it began.
But Ray ducked the punch at the last second and spun around, the gun still in his hand.
Bill immediately recognized his mistake. An old drill instructor’s words floated back to him from the ether of his memory.
Go for the body. The head is too small a target that can move and shift too easily.
Bill immediately knew the consequence of not heeding that advice.
The gun flashed.
Bill saw the shock and horror in Ray’s eyes.
He felt the warmth of the blood leaving the wound before actually feeling the pain of the puncture. He fell back to the concrete.
The ringing in his ears was fading away but leaving only silence in its place.
He heard the shouts of other guards telling Ray to get down. He closed his eyes. At least he had stopped Ray from escaping and hurting anyone else or himself.
Bill Singer heard the ringing. Then more shouting. Then the ringing again. And then nothing at all.
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