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Mary Stone - Autumn's Chase (Autumn Trent Series Season Two Book 3)

A Taste of… Autumn’s Chase

Chapter One

Flames danced and sparked before Ronny Oates like a tiny fireworks display that the world had decided to put on just for him. He hadn’t scored anything in over two days and was jonesing for any kind of high he could get. The bottle of jug wine he and Alfie passed back and forth helped keep the edge off, but he would’ve preferred a little smoke, maybe some dust.

Anything.

A quiet evening with a friend around the barrel fire wasn’t so bad, even without a little candy to make him feel good. Around the rail yard, wrapped up in huddles, all the other residents had fires going. Ronny scanned the crowd and spotted Bo and some other guys doing their thing—swapping jokes and clinking beer bottles like they always did.

Laughter and shouting emerged from a more distant group.

Somebody musta scored. Shame they can’t pass a little joy around the place, but I get it. Damn near fifty, maybe sixty people out here, all chasing a good time. First person who shows they’re holding will get dogpiled.

Ronny figured he was bound to get his fix soon. Tomorrow was always another day, and surely one of those tomorrows would have to come around in his favor.

If he put in a little extra search time in the morning and expanded the general score area, he could nail down some product. He’d hold out his can on the corner by that busy intersection and probably have enough for a fix by noon.

His confidence faltered as a pair of headlights streamed across him and Alfie, lighting up the night more than their small trash fire ever could.

Ronny considered fleeing, despite his drunken sailor’s legs, but there weren’t any cop cherries glowing from the car. He glanced at Alfie. “Did you put the word out we’re needing to score, man? Didn’t think dealers ran deliveries, not on this side of town.”

Alfie fell over laughing and almost spilled the last of their wine. He seemed drunker than Ronny, but not by much.

“Hey, get up, man. C’mon, you’re dumping the jug in the dirt.”

“Hello, gentlemen.” A friendly voice boomed from the vehicle. The driver wheeled around so he could talk to them from his window. “How are we doing on this fine evening?”

The guy’s voice oozed money, all proper and polite, like he belonged inside a bank.

And if Ronny knew one thing for sure, it was that people who belonged in banks had no business being anywhere near him and Alfie. Not unless Mr. Banker Man was searching for trouble, or maybe a quickie from one of the girls around the way.

Ronny snatched the jug of wine from Alfie and took a swig. “Sure you’re on the right street, man? Marla and Daphne work the other side of the block.”

“Oh no, my goodness, no. I’m not a…john is the word, I believe. No, nothing like that.”

“Well, what’s on your mind?” He threw his arm wide to encompass the lot full of barrel fires and drunken laughter. “Sightseeing?”

Alfie busted up again, toppling over and bumping Ronny’s shoulder. Ronny joined in on the laughter, having fun at Banker Man’s expense. And why the hell not? Dude decided to come around without being asked. Served him right for wandering on the wrong side of the tracks and flaunting a luxury vehicle like that.

Then Ronny realized the rich dude was laughing right along with them. And louder, like the joke wasn’t on him.

“Oh, my. Sightseeing! You’re quite the entertainer, aren’t you?”

Ronny didn’t like being labeled an entertainer. He was nobody’s paid performer, not unless the payment was sweet and promised to leave him feeling sweeter. Thinking about that gave him an idea.

“Hey, man,” Ronny choked back a laugh, “driving a car like that around here, it’s liable to get you noticed by the wrong people. Me and Alfie here, though, we’re the right kind of people. If you need to do some business nearby, we could keep an eye on her for you…for the right price.”

The rich man with the fancy voice sat there a moment, not saying anything. He reached for the dash and appeared to pick up his phone to make a call. But for what?

Maybe Banker Man wasn’t a banker after all. Maybe he was exactly the kind of person Ronny had been searching for. “If you’re looking to move some product, we can help. You got any ice or smoke on you?”

“I certainly don’t.” The man chuckled, as if the mere idea were amusing.

Swallowing his disappointment, Ronny skipped to the next base while he still had the opportunity. “You got a buck or two to spare, at least? I could really use a buck or two.”

The stranger hung his arm out the window, tapping his fingers against the shiny steel as it glowed in the firelight. “You know what, mate? How about I do you one better?” A click sounded as Banker Man unlocked his doors. “Get in.”

Ronny and Alfie scrambled to their feet, dusted off their pants, and climbed inside the vehicle. Fine leather seats met Ronny’s butt, and he groaned in pleasure as he settled over the heated bliss.

“Buckle up, gentlemen. Let’s go find your…supper.”

***

Ronny forced his tongue to unstick from the roof of his mouth and struggled to open his heavy eyelids. Whatever he’d eaten last night, he must’ve taken things too far. Dinnertime was always some version of whatever the hell he and Alfie could find in the nearest restaurant dumpster.

Shit, did we dig too deep again, get some of that day-old linguine and clams like last month?

That had been a night to remember, because Alfie found half a bottle of wine along with the scraps from somebody’s plate. Ronny knew it wasn’t a good idea to roll the dice on seafood, but chronic hunger did things to a man.

The night had been bad enough already, but the morning after was worse, when all that pasta and those clams came right back up, along with anything else they tried to put on top of it to hold it down.

But this…this was a new feeling, like coming down from the highest high, but heavier. Like the windows just wouldn’t open, no matter how hard Ronny tried.

He went to lift a hand and wipe at his cloudy vision, but his arms and legs refused to cooperate. Ronny grunted, attempting to thrash his limbs to life, get some blood flowing. Damn, his fingers and toes felt numb. He pulled and tugged, struggling to roll his shoulders and move his arms. The effort was all for nothing, and it took a moment for his sluggish brain to understand why.

His ankles and wrists were bound together with thick rope.

“What the hell?”

He blinked and shook his head, once to clear the fog and twice to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Nah, this ain’t no dream. And shit, this ain’t no flop down on the corner either. Where the hell am I?

Lifting his cheek from the cold concrete, he observed the four wood-paneled walls surrounding him. The boxlike room wasn’t a room at all.

It’s a stall. Some type of barn or animal pen. What in the living fu—

“Help.” A familiar voice crowed nearby. “Somebody, help me. Please.”

Ronny scooted to his right, inching along the wall, wiggling like a damn worm. He jerked his torso up and braced his shoulder against the wood, fighting against his bonds to a sitting position. “Alphonso? That you? Alfie?”

“Ronny? Shit, man, is that you?” Alfie’s pitch heightened with panic.

“Yeah. It’s me. I’m here, man. Where the fuck we at? What happened?”

“Man, we’re in trouble. Big trouble. We gotta get out of here.”

Ronny examined the front panel of his prison, noting how the top third was an open space lined with steel bars. “How’d we get here?”

Alfie moaned like he’d taken a kick to the balls. “It had to be that dickhead with the funny voice. He bought us dinner.”

“You sure, man?” Ronny remembered the car with its heated seats and Mr. Banker Man’s honeyed voice. “He was all nice to us and shit. Made sure we had all the food we could ask for.”

“Yeah, so what? How else did we get here if it wasn’t him?”

As Alfie’s words sank in, Ronny recalled what Mr. Banker Man had offered them last night. At least, he assumed it was last night. How much time had passed?

“How about dinner, boys? You look hungry, and I’m feeling like a Good Samaritan tonight. Lemme pick you up something to fill your bellies.”

They’d been having such a nice, normal evening. Normal for a couple of dudes aching for a fix anyway…

“That guy…he said he was a Good Samaritan.” Denial squirmed in Ronny’s chest even as he now sat bound and defenseless in some kind of barn that resembled a jail cell more and more with each passing second. “Mr. Banker Man said he was gonna help us get on our feet.”

Images flashed before his mind’s eye, memories of food and laughter, a smiling face across the table. Two cups of coffee. One for him and one for Alfie, plus two platters filled with eggs, bacon, pancakes. Even those little orange wedges Ronny liked so much. The server was a cute little thing. Said she was working her way through college when Banker Man asked her why she was on the late shift at her age.

She smiled at him and said he was a good man for taking care of people like me and Alfie. Making sure we had enough to eat.

The bacon tasted so good. How long had it been since he’d had a real meal like that? “He bought us dinner, man.”

“Yep.” Alfie’s fear had seemingly settled into a calmer state of dread. “We ate like kings. Now tell me what you remember after we left the restaurant.”

Ronny grappled with the playback, recalling the satisfaction of his full belly as they’d followed their new friend across the parking lot, laughing at one of the many jokes Banker Man told them.

“We got in his car, and he gave us that flask. Said we should have a nightcap, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. He called it ‘a nightcap’ and told us we could keep the flask when we were done. Said he was gonna take us home, and we laughed.” There was a bitter bite to Alfie’s voice.

Ronny pressed against the wall, as if he could get closer to Alfie through the wood. “We sure did. Home is anywhere we end up, and after a meal like that, hell, I coulda landed right outside that diner and felt at home.”

“But he told us to drink up, so we did.”

“You had the first swallow.”

“I did. And then?”

“I took it, got a mouthful. I passed it back.”

“We finished off that flask real quick. But what happened after that?”

Ronny didn’t have an answer, because he couldn’t remember anything beyond watching the streetlights streaming past the car windows as Banker Man drove them down the freeway.

Heading in the opposite direction of the rail yard where he’d found them.

Alfie sighed. “You don’t remember nothing after that, right? You checked out, didn’t you? I sure as hell did. And now we’re waking up here.”

Horses whinnied somewhere nearby, the sound echoing like it was coming down a hallway. Ronny had never ridden a horse or even seen one in real life, but he’d watched plenty of television and wasn’t a complete nimrod. He knew a horse when he heard one.

“Why’re there horses here, Alfie? We in a barn?”

“Nah. We ain’t in no barn.”

A sudden scream of terror drowned out Ronny’s thoughts. As he registered the fluorescent lighting overhead, his confusion mounted.

“What the hell’s going on? Where are we, man? What happened?”

Alfie shouted over the continued screaming. “He drugged us. He put a roofie in that flask.”

The steady drumbeat of a horse’s hooves split Ronny’s ears, cutting off the question on his lips.

We gotta get outta here. How do we get out of here? Shit!

The bloodcurdling screams rose to a deafening roar. Someone was being tortured, and nearby too. But the violent howls faded as if the victim were being dragged away. Ronny squeezed his eyes shut, trembling as the thunder of the hoofbeats increased, along with the terrible howling. Again and again the screams came, faded, and returned.

Only a minute—maybe two—could’ve passed, yet Ronny was certain he’d been listening to the barbaric pandemonium for all eternity.

Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop.

As though a higher power had heard his silent plea, the agonized shrieks diminished.

Ronny took a deep breath, panic making his voice crack. “Alfie? Did you hear all that racket? Wh-whaddya think that was all about?”

Alfie’s growl was edged with dread. “Of course I heard it. How the hell do you think I could’ve missed—”

The unmistakable clip-clop of hooves sent them into silence. Ronny ducked as first one, then two men passed his stall, leading a giant, sweating steed. But the cowering knee-jerk response did nothing to shield him from the sharp glare of a third man who pressed his head against the bars of Ronny’s cage.

“Don’t look so sad, buddy.” A smile stretched across his gaunt face, revealing two missing teeth. “We wouldn’t leave you out of the fun. In fact, you’re up next.”

Giggling like a psychopathic schoolgirl at the top of her class in Satan’s Academy, the man slithered away.

Ronny scooted across the stall, peeking between the wooden slats and watching the man lead the horse around a corner and deeper into…whatever this place was.

The hell does he mean? “You’re next.” For what? I can’t ride a damn horse. Not even sure I could manage a bike these days. What could—

His gaze jerked down to splotches of bright crimson streaked across the floor where the horse had just passed. Ronny swallowed hard as he studied the substance.

Paint. That could be paint. No reason to think it’s anything else even if it doesn’t smell like paint. Even if it smells like…

Laughter sounded from nearby, along with footsteps. Two men turned a corner and paced the hall outside Ronny’s stall. He strained to hear their hushed conversation.

“I do hope you’ve found the performance satisfactory and worthy of the contribution I’ve suggested.”

That douchebag’s voice was unmistakable. Banker Man…

Mumbled sounds of agreement followed Banker Man’s words, and he was quick to reply. “I understand your reluctance to invest quite so heavily. I must say, I’m certain there will be high demand for events such as I’ve proposed, and the addition of the grizzly bear…well, I’ve no doubt patrons will find it compelling, to say the least.”

Ronny could barely make out the other guy’s response.

“…may agree in principle…not sure…doing business…to be honest.”

Banker Man hmmed. “Let’s not be hasty, old chap. It won’t all be blood sport, I assure you. If you would accompany me this way, I can show you the viewing boxes, which will be reserved for our most generous donors.”

The other man replied, sounding like he objected still, but both voices faded along with the men’s footsteps.

“Alfie?” Ronny hardly recognized his own raspy croak. “Whaddya think they’re talking about? Whatcha think it means?”

A moment passed before Alfie responded with calm confidence. “I think it means we’re fucked, Ron. I think it means we’re fucked real bad.”

Chapter Two

Special Agent Autumn Trent stared at the framed picture on her gynecologist’s desk. Against a stunning backdrop of a white-sand beach and foaming sapphire waves, Dr. Georgette Dunbar and her husband grinned from ear to ear, each stretching out an arm to encompass the trio of little humans before them. Two girls and a boy.

Three kids. Not one. Not two. Three.

“…and we’ll keep an eye on that cyst. It’s not presenting any danger right now, and you aren’t experiencing any severe pain at present, correct?”

“Right. But the pain’s not consistent.” Autumn nodded, unable to take her eyes off the family photo. She forced the corners of her mouth to curl into a semblance of a smile.

“Yes, as you’re well aware, circumstances can change quickly. It’s larger, and we may have to consider a laparoscopy. You’ll need to let me know if your symptoms worsen. You will have bleeding and acute pain if it ruptures.”

“I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if it gets worse.” Autumn gestured toward the snapshot. “Your kiddos are getting big. They’re adorable.”

Dr. Dunbar clasped her hands together and beamed. “It happens way too fast. Have you and your partner given any more thought to having your own? There are several options that have proven to be successful routes for many of my other patients with endometriosis.”

My partner. Supervisory Special Agent Aiden Parrish. Father of the Year? Sure. Why not?

It wasn’t that Autumn couldn’t imagine Aiden being a good father. He was a dedicated man with a noble heart who gave every challenge he encountered, personal or otherwise, one hundred percent of his determination.

The problem was that Aiden had been elsewhere lately. Not physically, but mentally. The torturous mind games of Athaliah Brandt and her Nightmare Forest had planted a seed of distance between them, but the following case—hunting down a psychotic serial killer dubbed the Crucifier—had watered and fed the malady, allowing it to grow and flourish until Autumn no longer recognized the man sleeping next to her every night.

What if this breaks us? What if our relationship is already on the way out, and I’m too stupid or stubborn to see it going?

“Intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization,” Dr. Dunbar pulled some pamphlets from a display case, “surrogates, and infant adoption are all commonly used methods. But I always like to remind my patients of the high demand for qualified foster and foster-to-adopt parents. So many children are out there just waiting to be taken in and loved.”

I know. I was one of them.

Autumn didn’t fault Dr. Dunbar for failing to remember this piece of information. The woman had to keep track of hundreds of patients.

But spending half her childhood under the care of an older couple who were not her biological parents was something Autumn could never forget. Nor would she want to. Ronald and Kimberly Trent had adopted Autumn when she was thirteen, giving her the opportunity to experience her teen years as part of a loving family.

Autumn’s professional titles—Dr. Trent and Special Agent Trent—had both come to be courtesy of the giant open hearts of Ron and Kim.

“Ms. Trent?” Dr. Dunbar’s tone was laced with concern. “Did you hear me? Are you all right?”

Autumn fought the urge to smack herself as she pasted on a wide smile. “Yes. I’m sorry. I was just thinking, and honestly, I haven’t decided whether I want children yet. I don’t see a pregnancy fitting into my immediate future.”

Dr. Dunbar relaxed. “Well, I suppose working for the federal government does pose a challenge to raising a family. That’s understandable. Is your partner supportive of your hesitations?”

Something dangerously close to an insanity giggle rose in Autumn’s throat. She swallowed it, focusing on the window behind Dr. Dunbar and the blue March sky. “We’re on the same page.”

If by “same page,” you mean we’ve both avoided talking about the subject of parenthood for the entirety of our relationship…

“That’s good.” Dr. Dunbar slid the small stack of pamphlets Autumn’s way. “Healthy communication makes healthy relationships and, when the time comes, healthy parents. You can take these and read over them in the meantime. There’s a lot of good information in there.”

Thoughts of Special Agent Bree Stafford and her wife flashed through Autumn’s mind. Shelby was due this month. And while Autumn was ecstatic for the couple, she was also mindful of the fact that the baby’s upcoming arrival, mixed with the trauma of the Nightmare Forest, had caused Bree to transfer to a safe and predictable desk job.

I like being active in the field. Hunting down serial killers. I’m not willing to give this up, and neither is Aiden. Not for each other. Not for a baby. Not now. Maybe never. We can barely keep up with Toad and Peach.

Envisioning her floof of a Pomeranian and his capricious orange tabby sidekick, Autumn reached for the pamphlets and organized them into a stack. She slipped them into her bag without sparing a glance at any of the words or glossy pictures. “Our situation won’t be changing anytime soon. I’m more likely to freeze my eggs than anything else. But we can talk about that next time.” She slid off the table, unable to sit and stare at the perfect portrait of Dr. Dunbar and her family any longer. “Have a great day. Thank you so much.”

Autumn breathed a deep sigh of relief as her shoes hit the hallway tile and took her out the building’s side door, a few feet from her tactically parked Camry.

Once inside the car, she flung her bag onto the passenger seat and leaned against the headrest.

“It’s been an entire month since the last case.” She drummed her fingers over the steering wheel. “You should really have your shit together by now, shouldn’t you? Instead, you’re racing out of the doctor’s office like the room’s on fire.”

You’re just anxious to get back to work. Back into the field instead of holding down office furniture.

The Behavioral Analysis Unit she worked with at the FBI’s Richmond Field Office had been deskbound for nearly all of March. Desk duty got added to administrative leave after two cases nearly shattered the team and lost them one of their number when Bree transferred after the Athaliah Brandt case. Inspection Division had finished their review of that one and immediately picked up the Crucifer case after receiving complaints about Aiden’s actions.

Aiden just needed to complete his review with Associate Deputy Director Ramirez. Then they’d be back to normal on Monday.

As normal as her work could ever be anyway.

Autumn couldn’t argue with the protocols, but she knew Aiden’s internal cracks were much deeper than the powers that be realized and every bit as cavernous as her own.

Sixth senses don’t lie…even when you want them to.

She wasn’t the normal girlfriend who had to take everything her partner said at face value. The incident that had forced her into the foster care system—and separated her from her sister Sarah at just eleven years old—had altered her world in unseen ways as well.

Autumn’s biological father had dealt her a blow that sent her headfirst into a coffee table corner. The resulting head injury had required emergency brain surgery to save her young life, and the procedure had provided her with a strange new ability that had proven to be a gift and a curse throughout the following years.

She could feel the emotional state of another person simply by touching them.

Even so, she hadn’t been prepared for what she experienced with Aiden. His devotion to her as a colleague and girlfriend was unshakeable, and even at his sternest, she’d never doubted he loved her.

Then the team’s ordeal in the Nightmare Forest happened, and something inside Aiden…broke. His love for her remained, evident and clear. But it came at a cost now, like the intensity of the emotion forced him to relive the trauma all over again.

As if the Nightmare Forest hadn’t been enough, their last case involved a maniac moving calmly about the state as he nailed his victims to crosses.

Autumn was certain Aiden’s agitation had more to do with his personal connection to the victims, who had been the surviving children of a former Mafia powerhouse. The Fabbri crime ring had been targeted by the Crucifier on a crusade against organized crime.

Stopping Schull had brought the BAU team, and Aiden especially, face-to-face with a horrifying history of murder and slaughter. Whatever the Nightmare Forest had broken inside him, dealing with the Crucifier had done double duty to ensure that wound didn’t heal.

Autumn could grab Aiden’s hand at any moment and know exactly what he was feeling, but sensing his trepidation and unease didn’t enable her to decode it. She needed him to open up. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as he always had before.

Or at least, as she’d always believed he had.

And Dr. Dunbar wanted her to bring children into this mess? No. Not now.

She thought of the man the Crucifier had been before his broken mind took over, poisoning every inch of his soul. The Crucifier was once a loving husband and devoted father of four. A small-town minister.

Athaliah’s words rose from the depths of Autumn’s heart, dancing through her psyche, where they’d tattooed themselves in bright-red ink.

“And once everything has been taken from you, as it was from me, you’ll meet your true self. You’ll embrace her.”

Were they all one tragedy away from morphing into bloodthirsty monsters?

If someone shot down your family right before your eyes, who would you become?

Autumn shoved her key in the ignition and breathed in deep. “If I never have a family, I’ll never have to know.”

Some evils never die—they evolve.

FBI Special Agent Autumn Trent is desperate for something to focus on besides the lingering emotional fallout of their last two cases. And the growing distance between her and Aiden Parrish, her supervisor and boyfriend. So when a new case lands on her desk, she jumps at the distraction.

Who knew bloodshed could provide relief?

The case is as gruesomely appalling as it is distracting. Two homeless drug addicts dragged to death by their necks, their bodies throw… Read More