The Devil of Light Excerpt


THE MOON VANISHED AS the first raindrop plunked into a bucket, rippling its dark surface. Hitch looked heavenward and sucked a last drag, the lines in his face etched deeper in the ember's glow. Crushing the cigarette against his boot, he shoved the butt into a pocket, pausing beneath wide limbs as the next flush of drops chattered across the river's surface and left smoking dimples in the dusty clearing. A lone cloud whisked its bulk beyond the moon's face, releasing the starlight and carrying its payload of tiny missiles deeper into the forest. He tugged his work gloves on and snapped lids on buckets, enjoying the creak of heavy rope against the still night.

He'd first killed for the old man in the autumn. Fresh from prison, he was toying with but unable to fully grasp the idea of living a clean life. He honored no particular religion, but somehow knew that God had created each man for a purpose. And try as he might, he couldn't find a purpose for which he was better suited than killing. Oddly enough, he'd been popped for armed robbery - not one of his God-given talents, obviously - but never for the lives he had taken. Spat out of the justice system and grateful to breathe free again, he drifted from town to town using false identities and traded manual labor for cash, careful to avoid any place small enough that a strange face would attract attention, sampling the taste of a life without death.

He'd come across the old man in the feed store outside of Arcadia while loading another man's order of hay. Although neither spoke, each recognized in the other something he needed, and in himself, something he was willing to give in return. Hitchhiking back into town, he was unsurprised when the old man pulled alongside him on the highway.

To his credit, the old man had spoken little, stating only that he had an opening for a crew boss on one of his cattle ranches. Pay wasn't much, but the man who took the job would have a roof to himself and access to a vehicle. If things worked out, the old man added, more lucrative work would find him.

He'd listened, nose full of the pickup's ancient vinyl scent and the sweet smell of cherry tobacco, watching the tight jaw bristling with white five o'clock shadow as it bunched around the pipe clenched between thin lips. With a glance away from the road, the old man had asked for his name. He'd looked out the window and remembered his outstretched thumb, a dry smile on his lips.

"Hitch," he stated, setting the old man to laughing.

"Good," came the reply, chortle dying away. "I need a man who don't gab like some damn fool woman." The old man slipped a shiny cell phone from his shirt pocket and passed it across the cab. "It's clean. Set with my number. Once you're with me, you won't come into town. My wife'll do what shopping you need." He sucked on the empty pipe as they pulled up to a dingy motel. "Put your notice in at the feed store. Two weeks. I'll expect to hear from you then."

Hitch paused, hand on the door. "What should I call you?"

The old man grinned, long teeth gleaming faint green in the blue light stuttering from the motel's sign. "Sir."

"Yes, sir. Two weeks."

He shut the pickup's door, watched the old man drive away and felt as if he'd made a pact with the devil. The thought was oddly exhilarating for a man who had been thinking of going straight. Hunching his shoulders against a sudden chill, he slid the phone into his jeans pocket and headed inside.

But that had been months ago. Good to his word, the old man had set him up with legitimate work as crew boss, and with illegitimate work as need dictated. Hitch possessed special skills that the old man had sensed and used; cautiously at first, and now, it seemed, with more confidence. His eyes followed the strong length of trunk upward to a thick branch, pleased that his improvised pulley system was working. The first time, last autumn, he had still been dithering over that mythical clean life, and truth be told, his stretch in Huntsville had left him out of practice. He completed the task with a measure more mess and less productivity than he would have liked - he'd discovered long ago that a job poorly completed left its mark on the soul - but he followed the old man's instructions as closely as possible. Hitch had dressed and dumped the corpse where instructed, taking with him one small bucket and a newspaper wrapped package.

The old man was disappointed with the bucket's weight but had cackled with pleasure at the sight of the wetback's foot nestled in the previous day's sports section. Patting Hitch on the back, he had told him where to find payment for this unusual job and instructed him to consider what he would do differently given the same set of instructions.

And so he had. He was back in the same small clearing in the early spring, but this time with the tools to make his work much easier.

Hitch gazed up again at the clear sky and was tempted to smoke another cigarette, but shook off the urge. He removed his leather work gloves and replaced them with heavy latex before he took the drill apart and wrapped it in a towel to be cleaned later. The buckets were warm and heavy as he lifted them into the passenger side floor of the old truck. Hitch climbed behind the wheel and with a low growl from the engine, slowly reversed the pickup beneath the motionless form suspended between heaven and earth, catching the young body just at the shoulders. When he glanced in the rearview mirror at the dead man's legs, bound together and pointing toward the stars, his soul sang with satisfaction. Death was his purpose, and no one was better at it than him.



DETECTIVE MITCH STONE WAS out cold, head mashed into the window, lip raised in a snarl where his face had slid from its original position. Drool snaked down the glass, shimmering in the glow from the dashboard lights. His partner glanced at his reflection in the dark windshield and twisted in the driver's seat, irritation flaring as she searched for a comfortable position. Mitch was sixteen years her senior but he looked younger than forty-one, his blonde hair still fair, body respectably muscled with little effort on his part, the few lines on his face only adding to his charm. Perhaps, she thought, he looks so good because he can slip into a dead sleep no matter the situation.

Cass Elliot drew a deep breath and slowly released it. Her irritation wasn't directed at Mitch. She'd been lost in a black funk during the hours they'd spent on the road today. Wondering again why Sheriff Hoffner had bothered to hire and promote her, the first woman detective in Forney County, only to look right through her even when she was standing in front of him. As Mitch settled against the passenger door and began to snore, her thoughts had whirled farther back in time, searching the events of that night long ago, seeking clues to the identity of the man who had changed the course of her life. She was sucked again into an ugly pit of anger and helplessness. The dreams had been worse lately; they jolted her awake with the phantom sensation of fire streaking across her breast and a scream frozen in her throat.

She glanced in the rearview mirror and caught the fury in the flat line of her mouth and the contraction of her brow. Again she breathed deeply, forced the tension from her body and felt exhaustion ooze in to fill the void. When she checked her reflection again, her violet eyes were still weary and her creamy skin too pale, but the imprint of anger and fear on her features was gone. Cass looked at her sleeping partner and snorted in reluctant amusement, resisting the urge to lower his window. Instead, she raised Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" into audible range on the radio.
One blue eye stuttered open. "Are we home yet?"

"Almost." Her stomach gurgled. "Is Darla there?"

Mitch straightened his long form, gently rocking his head from side to side and swiping at his chin. Stifling a yawn, he checked his watch. "She should be by now. Probably have Zeus with her. Which one of your brothers is cooking?"

"Bruce. Harry'll be there and want to cook, but Bruce will have control. He always does in the Elliot kitchen. Harry has the girls this weekend so he'll be wrapped up with them anyway. If Daddy's home, he'll stay out of their way." She grinned, a movement that brought mischievousness to her delicate features. "We're pretty dysfunctional, aren't we?"

"When you add up all six brothers, yeah, you're more Munsters than Brady Bunch," he teased. "So, how do you feel about today?"

"My butt is numb."

"It's a long road from Arcadia, Texas to El Dorado, Arkansas, I'll give you that."

"We still have no motive or suspects." She released the steering wheel and twisted her thick coppery hair into a loose knot at the base of her neck. "We're not any closer to closing his case," she said as she glanced at the file resting on the console between them, "this Humberto Gonzalez. We know so little about him, about what he was doing in Arcadia, what happened to his foot."

"It's not easy to hack a foot off. Somebody wanted it for something. And why was Humberto wearing a woman's jogging suit? Think he was a cross-dresser?"

"If he was, he didn't know how to pick his clothes. That jogging suit was at least one size too small. I wonder," she said, braking gently for three deer grazing on the tender spring grass by the road, "if that pink outfit might be a signature."

Mitch laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"Come on, Cass. No self-respecting serial killer would dress his victims like that. The press would have a field day - the Pink Assassin, the Pepto Pervert, the Crimson Killer. Wait, I like that one -"

"Good point," she chuckled. "Besides, why would a serial killer bother with Arcadia? Nothing ever happens around here."


"WELL, F- ME." MARK Grove stood in the middle of the road. The sky above was littered with faintly glowing stars. Darkness was deep on the countryside and the trees flanking the road were visible only as a shadowy mass against the blackness of the night. He looked to the east, then to the west, gazing down the satiny ribbon of blacktop. It was empty. Saturday night in the middle of nowhere meant the county roads would be quiet until curfew time. He turned back to the car and took in his mirror image.

Matt Grove looked from the car to the body on the side of the road, scratching his scraggly beard. "Dude. That was almost a dollar for the cuss bucket."

"How bad is it?"

"Fender's dented. I might be able to pop it out, but not until we get home."

"Shoot," Mark said, running a hand along his stubbly cheek and envying his brother's decision to grow a beard. "I guess we'd better take the body home."

Matt's mouth dropped open. "What for?"

"How else are we gonna convince Momma this wasn't our fault?"

"Hey man, you were driving."

"You were in the car. That's guilt by association. And she's already mad because we're late."

"That's your fault. If you'd kept your phone charged -"

"And if you'd brought your damn phone we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we, dickweed? Get the extension cord."

Matt slunk away to open the hatch. The car was an old but well maintained Chevy Vega, a good starter car for most sixteen year olds, but maybe not for these two. These were the Grove boys. Six feet five inches tall and finally gaining some control over their very long limbs. They were murder on the basketball court and the track field, and now it seemed they were murder on the road.

"What are we tying it up for?"

"Do you know how to tell if a deer's alive?"

"Good point. By the way, that's a dollar for the cuss bucket. Might be two. Don't know about dickweed."

"What is your obsession with the cuss bucket? Mom's not even around."

"The more you put in, the sooner I eat all the pizza the all-you-can-eat buffet will let me."

"It's alive," Mark said, rubbing his shirtsleeve across his forehead as they finished hog-tying the deer.

"How do you know that, Einstein?"

"It snorted. Or farted."


"Lift on three."

Grunting with the effort, they heaved the unconscious deer into the back of the Vega. The car moaned with the added weight, creaking as they shoved the lifeless body deeper into the hatch area. Breathing heavily, they leaned against the car.

"You get us into some serious messes."

"Hey man, it could have been you. The coin just flipped my way, and -"

"What's that?" Matt asked, pointing into the woods. A light bobbed faintly in the distance.

"Not a flashlight."

"More like a torch."

They exchanged grins and trotted for the tree line, watching for a fence but finding none. The boys spotted a reddish glow and pushed underbrush aside to change direction, marking their trail. They moved forward another fifty yards and the smell of campfire underpinned with a slight tang hung in the air. The torchlight had vanished, either by virtue of distance or because it had been extinguished.

"Ouch! Damn honey locusts. I hate those things."

"That's another dollar," Matt said.

"Shut up."

They came to the edge of a clearing and hovered outside the perimeter, watching for movement. It was a crude circle no more than twenty feet across, a natural break in the woods rather than an area hacked open by man. The remains of a fire glowed inside a protective circle of small stones. Larger stones provided seating around the fire pit and the boys moved forward eagerly.

The seating stones were still warm and the stench hung heavier here. The underlying tang they had smelled in the woods had blossomed into a stinging odor.


"What did they cook?"

"Something with feathers on it," Mark said, pointing to white down that clung to the stones ringing the fire.

"Think they would've plucked it first." Matt stepped into the woods and twisted a branch from a bush. He poked at the ash. "They couldn't have eaten it. Too foul." He honked with laughter. "No pun intended, of course."

"Lame, dickhead. If they didn't eat it, what'd they cook it for?"

Matt shrugged, using the stick to scoot a small bone to the edge of the pit. "They leave anything?"

The two scavenged around the fire and made a quick survey of the surrounding woods, Matt returning to pick up the cooled bone. He turned it over in his hand as Mark wrinkled his nose. "Gross. Put it down."

"Nope. It's a talisman."

"No it's not."

"It is if I say it is." Matt shoved the bone in his jeans pocket and wandered around the clearing, eyes focused on the ground.

Mark scratched his chin, torn over the possibility that the bone could be a talisman, and then grabbed the stick and scooted a larger object out of the ashes. Using the hem of his shirt, he plucked it from the stones and bounced it between his hands until it cooled. "Mine's bigger than yours," he said, shoving his find into his brother's line of sight before tucking it in his pocket, where it bulged.

"In your dreams, nimnod, we're twins."

"Let's go. I'm hungry."

They wove back through the woods, arguing over how best to inform their mother about the accident. As they cleared the tree line, Mark stopped in his tracks. "Dude."


Mark pointed at the car, where a pair of angry eyes glared through the side window. "It's awake."


Buy at Amazon and other online retailers