Chapter One: 3:00 a.m. Friday morning
Merry watched, her presence cloaked by the shroud of night.
She’d been outside long enough for her vision to acclimate to the darkness. She missed nothing from her perch against the old brick wall. Her shoulders, back, and legs ached, angry for being stuck in the same position for so long.
They screamed for freedom from bondage.
She ignored them.
Tuned the pleas out—it was as simple as switching off a light switch. Physical pain was a breeze to override. Years of fighting off the aging process by taking up yoga, cross-training, and running, had programmed her muscles and brain to block out body aches and pains. Gave her the internal fortitude to push on, not give up, resist the temptation to cave in and surrender to the burn.
When she took up those activities, she had no idea they would serve a much darker, sinister purpose in her life.
Mental anguish was quite another story. Merry fought hard, refusing to listen to her mind and soul, which in the beginning, begged her to forget the disturbing, insane plans ruminating inside her mind. The urging to not embark upon the journey that took months of sleepless nights to craft.
She taught herself how to push aside the faint voice deep inside, the one pleading for mercy.
To return to sanity.
The last hurdle: a faint whisper to not take the life of another.
That was all in the past now, just like her former life. She’d mastered the art of turning her mushy heart and soul to stone. It was the main piece of the puzzle needed to transform herself into a killer. The thought made her almost giggle out loud at the absurdity of the phrase. On instinct, her gloved hand flew up and clamped over her mouth, just in case a sound escaped her dry throat.
Ha! Murder by Numbers nailed it. I’m living proof of what one must do to become a killer.
Nothing moved except her eyes, which were focused on the night’s target. He would be her first execution.
No remorse, no regret.
No second guessing her decision to end the life of a monster who more than deserved the punishment she was about to dole out.
Her actions would smother her old life of suburban housewife and mother, replacing it with—what? Crazed serial killer? The hand of justice?
In the end, did it really matter what others thought or called her?
Not one damned bit.
Muscles tensed and at the ready, her doubts and misgivings had vanished, pushed away by the adrenaline racing through her. The Lycra top wasn’t heavy, just hot. It trapped the humid night air against her chest like a vise. A thin bead of sweat trickled down her forehead and perched on the tip of her nose.
She ignored it.
The sounds of the city weren’t as loud at three a.m. Traffic from I-30 hummed in the distance. An occasional car horn beeped. Muted voices of the drunks leaving nearby bars and restaurants buzzed around her. Dogs barked, along with the shrill cry of a baby.
Suddenly a siren trilled, making her heart pound, and breathing come faster. Concentrating, she honed in on the sound. No, it wasn’t close, and it was fading fast, which meant the cop was heading in the opposite direction. Probably a unit responding to an accident on the highway or pulling over a drunk.
She inhaled deeply, forcing her breath to return to an even, steady rhythm. Merry focused her attention back to the noises around her position. The squeaks of a few rats to her left barely registered. Squeaks which only a few months ago would have sent her running and screaming in the other direction.
Merry ignored it all.
Nothing mattered except completing the mission.
The rational voice whispering in her mind to turn and go home, silenced, banished forever the minute she dressed her five-ten frame in all black—red hair hidden under a skullcap—and left her house earlier. Strength and power flowed through her still torso, fueled by bloodlust. The sensations were much more enjoyable than the gut-wrenching pain of the brokenhearted forty-plus-year old woman she had been.
Merry had waited in the alleyway for almost three hours, camouflaged in black, crammed up against a filthy dumpster. No one except dealers and users ventured into this part of downtown the minute the sun disappeared. The office workers had scattered, unwilling to be caught on the streets after darkness fell. During the past two months of careful plotting, she had learned the habits of the lowlife drug dealer she had marked as her target.
Merry discovered this particular alley was worked only by him.
All her planning, down to every possible scenario, was only seconds away from fruition.
The peddler of death was about to be Little Rock’s latest crime statistic.
And he would be Merry Marie Hall’s first example of the swift judgment enforced by her own internal court.
Her eyes narrowed into small slits as she watched him saunter into her trap.
Court is now in session. The Honorable Merry Hall, presiding. The defendant, Carlos “Peppy” Ramirez, is found guilty. The punishment for his multitude of crimes is death. Execution shall now be carried out by the Court. The Defendant’s appeal is denied. Sentencing to commence. Right now.
Merry bit her lip to keep the snide grin at the corners of her mouth at bay. She watched Peppy's lanky body move with catlike grace through the alley toward her. He was so close she could smell him—a disgusting mix of body odor, chemicals and cheap cologne. He reeked, and the stench assaulted her nose. Less than twenty feet away, he stopped and glanced around.
Merry held her breath.
From her research, she knew Carlos Ramirez had been a street thug for years. Before his twentieth birthday, he’d been arrested over ten times for peddling narcotics. Each arrest and conviction ended the same way: a large fine, no prison time, and a slap on the wrist. A few times, forced attendance at classes that were supposed to teach him how to live life drug-free. He’d be right back on the streets within hours after an arrest and only went to meetings for the free food—and potential of scoring new clients.
How did his public defender sleep at night, knowing his legal finagling allowed a dangerous criminal back on the streets? How did the prosecutors feel each time they came face-to-face with the same exact person for the same exact crimes? Did they feel like they were just spinning their wheels in the mud? What about the judges? Did it ever get under their skin, knowing their courtroom was more like a circus, and they were just shepherding the cattle and sheep in a perpetual circle? Not to mention the heroic cops, who risked their lives every single time they hit the streets. How much time and manpower was spent arresting the wastes of society, only to have to sit back and watch the bastards waltz out of jail?
Pay a hefty fine.
Keep the county coffers full.
People—no, animals—like Peppy were a threat to society. Leeches that sucked out the life of addicts with each snort, shot, swallow, and injection they sold. Anything could be used as tender: cash, other drugs, sex, or a combination of all three. Peppy, and others like him, didn’t care about the age of their clientele or how the poison they offered would condemn the user to a life of sorrow, pain, and grief. They never concerned themselves with what the addiction would do to not only the addict but to those who loved them.
She had relived the nightmare over and over, until it finally drove her to madness. She had been the kind of woman who had a loving husband, adorable son, great job and was living the American dream.
The idyllic world of Merry Marie Hall, loving wife of Harold and proud mother of her only son, Joshua, was long gone. The disappearing act began the minute Peppy Ramirez sold a little white pill to Joshua nearly five years ago. Watching her child become a raging addict, battling with the court system, (in-out, pay a hefty fine), and depleting their retirement for expensive trips to rehab (which never worked) took their toll on her mental and physical state. The countless arguments late at night with Harold about the situation and the cringing when the phone rang at two or three o’clock in the morning—the signal yet another arrest happened—had aged them both.
Almost destroyed their marriage.
Her former life had been finally been snuffed out in less than one week. The flame dimmed six months ago when she heard the news—the night her brother knocked on the front door at three a.m. The minute Merry woke up from the sound of the pounding, she went numb. In the deepest recesses of her heart, she knew Joshua was gone. Felt the hole, the giant black void, gut her chest. She knew before the stoic Detective Derek Isaac Clarke, her tough-as-nails brother, had a chance to say a word. While she sat on the couch, erect and frozen in one spot, hands clasped with Harold’s, the hole spread. Engulfed her heart and then overtook to her mind. When Derek told them Joshua was the victim of an overdose of heroin, the blackness began to choke her.
What little light left in her world extinguished when Harold suffered a massive coronary that ended his life at Joshua’s funeral.
Not the time to think about things you can’t change. Concentrate on your purpose.
She blinked twice and refocused. The time for mourning was over. Carpooler, soccer-mom, devoted wife—she was one with a quick smile and jovial demeanor. Now, all that was gone—buried right next to the corpses of husband and son. What resided inside her now was Maniacal Merry—a woman bent on revenge after her old life ended.
The new one was on the cusp of beginning—one started by the actions of Carlos Fucking Peppy Ramirez.
Merry waited and watched with patience. Not only was Carlos a dealer of just about every conceivable drug, but he was also a heroin user. The combination made him beyond careful. The times she'd followed him in the past, she had to maintain a safe distance. Peppy was on constant edge and wary of his surroundings. The little waste of flesh was intent on guarding his stash and cash from would-be thieves or rival dealers.
Merry could see his shoulders sag a bit, indicating he was satisfied he was safe. Sure enough, Peppy reached into his pocket and pulled out a smoke, lit it, and then leaned back against the dirty brick wall. He was less than ten feet away. The lone streetlight cast eerie shadows across his withered face. The plumes of white smoke looked like horror movie vapors. He wasn’t looking in her direction. Peppy’s attention was focused on a barking dog at the end of the alleyway. Merry stood and pulled out the syringe from her pocket. Her gaze never left his torso, searching for any movement or signs he’d heard her move.
Peppy’s cell phone rang, startling them all, including the dog. The mutt bounded away into the night, leaving the alleyway quiet again. With a flick of his wrist, Peppy put to the phone to his ear. His raspy voice bounced off the walls straight into Merry’s ears.
“Yo, what ails ya? Uh-huh. Yeah, I gotcha back. Always do, right? Stuff is straight, and I mean straight. No cuttin’ at all. Yeah, same place. Hurry up. You know I don’t hang in one spot too long. Aight? Oh, I hear ya. Ain’t we all? If it’s a problem, we’ll work it out. I know those lips of yours are worth their weight, ya dirty ho. Later.”
In disgust, Merry cringed while Peppy rubbed his crotch. The warped smile on his face made her want to vomit.
“Mmm, mmm! Gonna fill her up right! She’s worth a few hits for free.”
Sliding the cap off the tip of the syringe with her gloved hand, Merry made sure to keep her movements slow and quiet. Peppy finished his smoke and knelt down on the wet cement. Removing his jacket, he fumbled around in the pockets while muttering about his upcoming deal and payment arrangements. His back was to Merry. Her steps were quick and sure. In three strides from her long legs, footfalls silent, the thick rubber on her shoes covered by duct tape, she was behind him.
She wouldn’t give Carlos “Peppy” Ramirez a chance to realize what was happening until it was too late for him to do a damned thing about it.
Raising her right leg, visions of her husband and son in their respective caskets, Merry brought it down with all her might. The flat of her boot-clad foot connected with the base of his neck. Peppy made a strange grunting sound as his body jerked forward. His cell phone flew from his hand, clanking on the pavement as it bounced away.
His face slammed into the damp concrete. Red droplets sprayed into the air as his nose and lips met the ground. He groaned again and tried to roll away.
Merry was faster.
Dropping down, she buried her knees in his back, her full weight centered right below where his rib cage ended. Peppy squirmed underneath her like a worm on hot blacktop in the middle of summer.
Grabbing a handful of Peppy’s thin, black hair, Merry yanked his head up, and then slammed it into the ground. His yelp of pain was muffled by the blood in his mouth and throat, and the sound of his teeth shattering. She repeated the movement until his arms quit flailing and no more grunts erupted.
He was out cold.
And his bare arm was exposed.
Can’t ask for it to get any better than this.
In one swift motion, she hopped off his back and crouched next to his arm. Finding his vein was simple, even in the dim alleyway. It stood, swollen and ugly from God-only-knows how many years of abuse. Merry held her breath as she buried the needle into it. She pushed the plunger all the way down, releasing the heroin she found in Joshua’s apartment months ago into Peppy’s body. The empty needle barely made a sound when she let it go and it fell onto the pavement.
Out of breath, Merry scrambled to her feet. She took several steps away from dealer of death’s limp body and picked up his cell phone from its resting place. In seconds, the movements memorized from hours of practice, she opened the back and yanked out the SIM card and shoved it into her pocket.
In three steps, she reached his jacket. She emptied the pockets, taking all the drugs she found. After stuffing them in her waist pack, she tossed the paraphernalia around like confetti.
Peppy let out a slight moan while trying to turn his head. Dropping his jacket, she turned to look at him. His face was covered in dripping, thick red blood, dirt, and pebbles. She couldn’t decide what was worse, the gore all over him that shecreated or the fact it didn’t seem to faze her in the least.
Merry moved closer, mindful of the pools of blood surrounding the head of her prey. Flicking open his cell phone, she set it down inches from his bloodied hand. She punched in 9-1-1 but didn’t hit send.
“Hey, Peppy. Is this what you want? A chance to call for help before you overdose, or bleed to death from the ass-kicking I just gave you? Hmm? Well, here you go.”
She pointed to the phone, though she really didn’t know why. It was doubtful he was aware enough to comprehend her words, much less see. “I’ve even dialed for you. All you have to do is hit the send button. It’s right here by your hand. Come on, just reach out and grab it. Help is only a few inches away. Isn’t that what you want? What you crave? Help? Someone to rescue you from certain death?”
A slight groan was Peppy’s only response.
Every disturbing memory of the last six months flooded her mind.
Standing on the other side of the glass while the coroner pulled back the sheet, exposing Joshua’s pale body.
Derek holding her while she crumpled into a blubbering mess on the cold, concrete floor of the M.E.’s office.
Joshua’s body lying in the casket.
Her own anguished screams when Harold clutched his chest in agony and fell to the floor, dead before he collapsed next to their son’s coffin.
Picking out caskets for the two most important men in her life over the course of five days.
The memories infused Merry with righteous anger. She growled, “Guess what? That’s what every single junkie wants, and you don’t give it to them. You hand them death instead. Push their salvation away inch by inch with each hit you sell them.” The toe of her boot pushed the cell phone out of Peppy’s reach. “Just like I’m going to do to you.”
With a sick, twisted fascination, Merry watched while the dying Peppy tried to form words. His pathetic attempts to blink and wash away the blood clouding his vision weren’t working. His fingers wiggled as they fumbled around for the phone. As the drugs careened through his body, he looked like he’d become one with the blacktop. Blood oozed from his mouth. A bubble of air as he tried to speak popped.
The sounds of heels clacking on the ground caught Merry’s attention. The bastard’s last deal was close. Instead of finding herself a fix, the woman would turn the corner and discover bloody carnage.
Maybe the sight will help get her clean.
Merry leaned closer, her lips inches away from the monster’s blood-soaked ear. “That was for losing my husband. This is for killing my son.”
In a flash, she was on her feet. One final stomp to the back of his neck ended the life of Carlos “Peppy” Ramirez with a sickening crunch.
The sound of footsteps drew closer, so Merry quickened her pace. She bent down, grabbed the still-warm index finger which was coated in fresh blood, and scrawled a rival gang’s symbol on the pavement to his right.
With that, Merry turned and fled into the night.
One down. Many, many more to go.