"We are born with our father's names. We are not responsible for their failures. We are responsible for what they made us believe in. That is our only obligation. And it is even then a choice which we may sometimes be wise to ignore."

~Warren Eyster

ALWAYS Prologue

The Origins of a Maniacal Hero

IT WAS BACK in the day . . . Freak on a Leash and Nookie topped the rock charts and TRL was the biggest thing on television—at least as far as most of the youth of that time was concerned. If you didn't have issues, then you didn't know who Korn was. If you had issues, then you were fitting right in with the current generation, a generation where having a social stigma or a psychological problem made you unique and being individualistic was all the rave. Bi-po was the new spaz—and Ritalin was the best candy.

Unlike other fourteen-year-olds, Cameron didn't strive to be unique, didn't care about the latest rave, wanted little out of life and had few friends.

He tightened his half-gloved hand around the barbell.

"One more set," Dwoane said gruffly, standing behind the weight bench, spotting. "You can do it, Big C!"

Although Dwoane was a senior, the Panthers' tight end and had the physique that could rival a Big 12 college player, Cam's build was even bigger. At fourteen years old and a height of 6'1, Cam weighed in at 304, bench pressed 310, squats 420.

Cam was big. He was strong.

He was a bona fide anomaly, whether he wanted or appreciate that fact or not.

In. Hold.

Lower. Feel the burn . . . flowing . . .

"That's smooth," Dwoane said.

Exhale. Lift. Slow. Steady.

Dwoane's name was pronounced Duh-waun but guys on the team liked to razz him. They'd call him Dwayne. And he'd lose it.

"I ain't no white-ass hick, muthafuckers! I got genuine Texan black snake right here, baby!" in which he'd always grab his crotch. Of course, only other varsity players ever got to mess with Dwoane.

Cam had personally witnessed a JV player make the same joke and Dwoane made him eat grass until he screamed for mercy. The poor guy had tears running down his face before Dwoane finally got off him.

"Nine more just like that, baby!" Dwoane said.

This was Cam's third and final set on the bench.

Two more. A third.

"This is the wall, boy! Hit it! Smash it! Show me that willpower!"

Cam's teeth clenched. The high school's weightlifting room was stifling hot, even with a half dozen fans set up inside the barn-like building. It was the best this country-hick high school could afford.

"C'mon! My granny can pump iron better than you and she's ninety-two!"

Cam had heard the Panther's coach, Coach Sammy Block, use that same zinger, so it didn't make the fire burn any hotter, not that he needed more motivation. Cam wasn't working out with aspirations of joining the football team. He wasn't trying to bulk up to get girls.

Cam had one motivation; get strong and big enough to kill Tony, his old man. He had stopped calling him 'Dad' about two years ago, the night Tony had beat Mom unconscious. And as a result, Ajay had succumbed to a severe panic attack. Both Mom and Ajay were rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

"Two more to go, baby! Push!"

The flames of pain constricted around his arms and upper chest. Good flames. Great flames! No pain, no gain. No pain, no gain. More gain, and no more pain . . .

Dwoane was one of Cam's few friends, which was fine. Cam didn't want a bunch of friends. His six-foot frame and three hundred pounds proved useful in keeping people at a distance. Not many other fourteen-year-olds measured up. He was a freak-of-nature the school bully had teased, until Cam knocked three of his teeth loose, earning him the nickname The Tooth Reaper. Ironically, the moniker wasn't given to him by a foe; it was given to him by Dwoane—who had spoken the sentiment in jest.

"Last one!"

Arms shaking.

Breath ragged. "Let's do this!"

Lower.

"We gonna do this or not? Anytime now!"

Cam held the bar a half-inch above his ribcage.

"We're gonna finish this shit!"

Cam grunted. He thrust the weights upward.

"That's my man!" Dwoane did a dramatic twirl. "Alright. Alright. That's good. That's good. That's real good. Let's call it a day."

Exhaling, Cam set the bar down.

Although he was considerably bigger than Tony, he couldn't help but fear the bastard. He was sure he could beat Tony to death, and probably do so easily, but he couldn't shake his nervousness and self-doubt.

Cam was no different than most kids, he supposed. Growing up, he saw his dad as a figure of authority, someone you respected, tried to obey best ya could and never, ever gave lip to. Cam simply couldn't wrap his head around reversing their roles.

It was a mindset, Cam realized. He had to think of his dad as inferior. And think of himself as the one in control. The parent. It was the only way he could muster up the spine enough to take the fucker out. And the fucker really had to be taken out. Soon.

Because every night that went by without Cam doing the deed was another night Ajay had to take another beating.

Another part of Cam's hesitation was because he didn't know how he would kill his father and get away with it. Leave no evidence. No reason to suspect foul play. Religiously, his mother—and Tony if he wasn't passed out drunk—would watch America's Most Wanted with John Walsh and for the last several months Cam had paid special attention to all the murder cases, especially the evidence that led to the captures in the update portions of the program. Fingerprints were a big deal, and so was motive. There wasn't much he could think of to do about motive.

After today, Cam knew how he would kill Tony.

Because today, in his eighth-grade health class, he had learned the answer to a question that had haunted his waking and sleeping thoughts.

The answer to the puzzle hid within a simple statistic: More than eighty percent of alcohol-related boating accidents resulted in death by drowning.

And fingerprints didn't stick to water.

Day after tomorrow, Tony would go fishing.

He went every Saturday and Sunday, as long as the weather held out.

And sunny skies were forecasted for this weekend.

It was the same routine, every damn weekend. Tony would toss a bunch of rods and reels and a large tackle box into the back of the truck along with a case of beer. Then he'd hitch the green aluminum boat to the truck, tossing in a few extra tall boys of beer in the live well. "A real man can't ever be too careful," he'd frequently say before yelling for Cam and Ajay to get in the back.

Sometimes Ajay would try to bring a whole case of Hot Wheels with him, but Tony would say there wasn't enough room for that kiddy shit.

Dwoane tossed a wet towel at Cam as they headed for the door. The cool moisture on his burning muscles was a welcome reprieve on his sweaty flesh.

"You maxed 335 today," Dwoane said. "By tight end standards that places you only five away from the Excellence rank, that's 90% max rank."

Cam tossed the towel back at Dwoane. "Ninety-percent? I want one-hundred-fucking-percent."

"I know. I know. You one crazy cracker. But you push yourself too damn much, too damn hard, and you gonna blow your muscles like a car blows a belt. Then it's all gonna be for zilch."

"Just meet me here tomorrow. Same time."

"Nah. Take tomorrow and the weekend off. We'll pick up on Monday."

"I can't wait that long. Tomorrow. It's my last chance."

Dwoane shook his head. "Look, I ain't gonna hook you up with anymore 'roids if you don't cool your jets for a bit. This some serious shit, Big C. Hell, your face is already starting to look like you got stung by a nest of bees. People gotta know you doin' the shit by now."

Cam felt his temper flare. Face reddened. Teeth gritted. "Nobody knows shit."

Dwoane moved to stand in front of the doorway, obstructing Cam's exit. "None of this shit better blow back on my black ass, you got that?"

With a grimace, Cam nodded.

They pushed through the double doors and strode across the high school parking lot.

Dwoane flipped him off. "See ya Monday, Big C."

Cam groaned. He shoved the key into lock on the driver's side of his mother's car, a run down Chevy Citation. That's when he saw the note that was slipped between the glass on the window and the rubber molding.

You don't have to pick me up. Had to leave work early so I got a ride home with Debbie. There was an incident. Ajay got suspended. Brought a knife to school.

~mom

Cam's right hand tightened into a fist. "Fuck!" He punched the roof of the car. The metal buckled and creased.

Tony would punish Ajay for sure. Hell, he didn't need much of a reason to whoop Ajay and did so most every night. Ajay's panic attack two years ago set something off inside Tony, a special kind of hatred for his youngest son.

That's when he started hurting Ajay.

Started with sending him to bed without supper and forcing him to take baths in iced water.

And progressed to putting out cigarettes on his head and making him sleep in the shed.

Tony was smart, never leaving evidence of his 'punishments'. He also rarely touched Cam. Only Mom— when she tried to interfere—and Ajay, but mostly Ajay.

Tonight, Tony would surely make Ajay sleep in the shed; no pillow or blanket, lying on car oil stains in the wood floor, feeling the tickle of crawling cockroaches and listening to the scurrying of rats, while Cam would be left to sleep in his bedroom on a soft mattress with pillows and blankets, all comfy like.

Cam started the car, shifted to drive. He drove toward home and what surely would be a long night, for all of them.

It had been a long night, just as Cam had suspected it would be. On Friday, he took Dwoane's advice and rested up. No lifting weights. He spent the day picturing Tony's face; eyes wide open, eerily staring upward from beneath murky water.

Finally, the moment was here.

"A real man can't ever be too cautious," Tony said, chuckling at his own joke as he tossed the extra beers into the live-well. "You two dipshits get in the back. Let's go!"

CAM STOOD ON THE EDGE OF Lake Raven, a remote pond nestled deep in the forest of Huntsville State Park. A hundred yards off shore empty cans bobbed around Tony's green boat. He was striking matches, cussing the wind for blowing them out, while a cigarette wobbled between his thin lips.

From a Styrofoam cooler Cam grabbed a can of beer, cracked it open and guzzled.

Ajay sat crouched on the sandy bank and stared up at him incredulously. "Daddy gonna whoop you

for drinkin' his beer."

"Hush," Cam said.

Ajay returned to his measly two Hot Wheels that he'd stowed away in his denim shorts. A red convertible and a pick-up truck with tiny plastic cargo lights molded on the top, both filthy from the wet sand.

Blood raced through Cam's veins. Bullets of sweat bubbled on his forehead. A flash of heat swept over his body. With balled fists, he closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing, slow and controlled.

Dwoane had taught him this technique after Cam had complained about the side effects of the damn steroids. The drug drove his temper to borderline uncontrollable levels. Despite the side effects, the desperation to increase his bulk and do it quickly, kept Cam the tight end's most loyal customer and workout buddy.

Ajay lay on his stomach by Cam's feet. He pushed the toy car and truck through some dried pine needles further from the bank, carving a road through the packed needles. "It's getting dark." He glanced up at Cam. "You think we might go home soon? I'm bored. I wish I'd brought my tractor, but I couldn't fit it in my pocket."

Dried blood covered the crack on Ajay's bottom lip. The purple on the apple of his cheek had darkened but, at least the swelling had gone down. Last night's 'punishment' had left obvious marks. Tony was getting careless.

"Goddamn wind!" Tony bellowed. "That sonuvabitch on the Weather Channel don't know shit!" Tony chucked the entire box of matches into the pond.

Cam watched the box sink like a casket, sinking to its watery grave. He crouched beside Ajay. "What were you thinking, bringing a knife to school?"

Absently, Ajay shrugged.

Cam lifted Ajay's shirt. Between his shoulder blades where Tony had burned him with a cigarette, a blister oozed puss. "If you stop screwing up, maybe Tony would get after me one of these nights instead of you."

Ajay glided the car over a rock while making vrroom-vrroom sounds. "I wish I had a real car. I wish we could drive somewhere. Anywhere but here."

"Shithead," Tony bellowed from the middle of the lake. "Beer!"

"Want me to go this time?" Ajay asked. "I can swim real good now."

Cam rubbed the black hair on top of Ajay's head. "You take enough shit from him already. I got this."

"Now!" Tony's gruff voice echoed off the dense pines of the secluded campground.

Cam pulled Ajay's shirt down. Gently, he gripped his brother under the arms and turned him until his back was toward the lake. "See that big stump way over there?" He thumbed, gesturing with a tilt of his head.

"Yeah. I see it."

"Go make a racetrack around it, okay?"

"Sure. That sounds kinda fun." Ajay jumped to his feet and headed for the stump several yards away.

Cam pulled his sweat-drenched shirt over his head, folded it neatly and set it on a log. He looked down at his muscle-bound torso and the bulges in his biceps. Would it all pay off?

Ajay glanced over his shoulder. "What you gonna do?"

Cam felt one corner of his mouth lift into a cruel grin. "Bring Tony his last beer."