A Taste of... Autumn's Rage

Chapter One

“Good morning.” Evelyn Walker smiled warmly at the man sitting on the sterile looking steel-framed bed. She picked up Gerard Helmsey’s tray from her cart and approached his side, keeping a close eye on his every move. “Are you ready to take your meds for me?”

The epitome of compassion, care, and tidiness, Evelyn’s dark curly hair was neatly tucked behind her ears. Cheerful brown eyes graced a plump, pink-cheeked face that many labeled as cherubic. It was fitting. The nurse made great efforts to spread positive energy to each and every patient under her charge.

“Don’t look at me,” Gerard mumbled, turning his face to the wall.

Evelyn had expected the reply. This particular patient usually offered her and everyone else only two comments. “Don’t look at me,” and “Screw a goat.”

She greatly preferred the former.

As a nurse at Virginia State Hospital—Virginia’s only Adult Maximum Security Treatment Program—Evelyn wasn’t fazed in the slightest by Gerard’s response. She was familiar with each of the patients and their habits, as well as their reasons for being in the establishment.

Gerard’s backstory moved her deeply, and no matter his response, Evelyn treated the graying, lanky-limbed forty-six-year-old with kindness. Despite being a mentally disturbed criminal, he was also a victim and a human being who deserved the chance at recovery just like any other diseased individual.

Evelyn struggled to push the images the crimes this particular patient committed before he first arrived at the facility from her mind. Certain patients came to her hospital with lives full of details that were more difficult to digest than others.

Could she ever forget that Gerard Helmsey had forced three women to have sexual intercourse with a goat before throwing their bodies into a meat grinder?

No.

At the same time, Evelyn also couldn’t forget that his own uncle had forced—on a daily basis—an eight-year-old Gerard to perform this same act of beastiality with numerous farm animals for seven years straight.

Young Gerard’s abuse and horror had only ended when his uncle passed from a sudden heart attack, leaving him under the sole care of his unaffectionate aunt. She refused to acknowledge the maltreatment ever occurred.

Evelyn was convinced that Gerard hadn’t ever had a friend in his entire life. Furthermore, she held a firm belief that friendship was the first building block to any mental patient’s recovery.

Humans needed to know that someone genuinely cared before the motivation to get well could ever begin to blossom…or exist at all.

Gerard Helmsey was still a person, regardless of the atrocities he’d committed.

“Here, Gerard. Take these and wash them down.” She placed a small cup containing three pills in one of his hands and a paper cup of fresh water in the other.

He complied, his movements trained and robotic, first dumping the pills in his mouth and then chugging the water. Not waiting to be asked, Gerard opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out.

“Good, Gerard. Very good. Thank you for being so cooperative today. I appreciate it very much.” Evelyn addressed her patients by their first name every chance she could. A reminder that she thought of them as a real person. She searched his eyes for signs of comprehension.

Gerard stared back at her blankly. “Screw a goat.”

“You have a wonderful day, Gerard. The sun is shining, see?” She pointed at his barred window. “That always makes me a bit happier.”

“Don’t look at me.” Gerard turned to stare at the wall behind him once again.

“I’ll be back to check on you soon.” Evelyn returned her tray to the cart, pushed the aluminum contraption with its annoying squeaky wheel through the doorway, and shut the door with a soft tug.

The automatic lock clicked loudly into place, but she saw through the rectangular observation window that Gerard didn’t stir at all.

He’s becoming so much more unresponsive. That medication has taken him past zombieland and straight into the vegetable garden.

Evelyn shook her head. She understood, of course, the need for sedation…especially when considering the heinous acts that any given patient in this building had carried out. But how could someone like Gerard Helmsey move toward the light when he was forever shadowed by such heavy, dark curtains of pharmaceuticals?

She forced herself to focus on the next patient, who deserved her full attention every bit as much as the last. And even though she was in perpetual trouble for treating the disturbed individuals like human beings in the first place, Evelyn fully intended to continue spreading warmth and compassion.

Dr. Philip Baldwin had expressed a deep disapproval of Evelyn’s friendliness with the patients, but the relatively new medical director’s viewpoint hadn’t derailed her in the least. Evelyn knew she hadn’t crossed any ethical or legal lines. In her eyes, adopting the cold demeanor that Dr. Baldwin wanted the entire staff to exude would be morally wrong.

These patients weren’t numbers. They were people. Many of them, like Gerard, would forever remain too medicated to ever grasp the true experience of a life lived in its fullness.

This building was their life. Their only reality. The least she could do for the aging man was give him a smile and a kind word to anticipate each day.

Beep beep!

Evelyn grabbed her pager, then glared at the message as well as the name of the messenger. Speak of the devil and the devil presented himself. Dr. Baldwin wanted her in his office.

How fun.

* * *

Evelyn knocked, then waited a full thirty seconds for Dr. Baldwin’s permission before entering his office. “You wanted to speak with me?” She clasped her hands together and forced her face to retain a polite, respectful air.

“I would ask you to sit, Evelyn, but this won’t take that long.” Dr. Baldwin’s foreboding dark green eyes nearly pinned her to the floor. Despite refraining from having her sit, he maintained a position of obvious comfort in his luxury leather desk chair.

Evelyn continued to appear pleasant, even though she knew what was coming.

“I believe I have made my viewpoint on the subject of interaction with patients incredibly clear in the time that I have been this hospital’s director.” His voice had taken on a lecturing tone she loathed. His unabashed sternness smothered his words in severity.

Dr. Philip Baldwin hadn’t been the medical director of Virginia State Hospital for an entire year yet, but the majority of the staff disliked him to his core. To the contrary, Evelyn had been on staff for five years and counting. She was a favorite of the patients and her co-workers alike.

“The troubled minds we deal with here, Evelyn, require a much more formal code of conduct than you persist to display. Your ‘Susie Sunshine’ act is going to stop. I will tolerate it no longer.”

Dr. Baldwin waited, as though Evelyn might need a few seconds to absorb the gravity of his words. She didn’t need even one.

“I don’t find anything wrong with bringing a cheerful attitude into the hospital’s environment. This place is depressing enough as it is.” She held his gaze direct and steady, her posture as tight as a bow. Her firm refusal to show her distinct discomfort powered her unwavering stance, even as she watched his face transform into an angry glower.

“Those people—”

“Those people in those rooms are thinking, feeling individuals. Not just specimens for us to observe and study.” She lifted her chin. “And since we’re on the subject, how do you expect to observe and study patients who are so drugged they can barely remember their first name let alone the crimes they committed and why.”

She was so getting fired.

The clock on the wall seemed to be counting down the seconds until her termination while the doctor stared at her with disbelieving eyes filled with a rage that made her wonder if he should be the one locked behind bars.

“They are sick criminals, Evelyn,” Dr. Baldwin countered with increased volume. “And you know that. Deranged. Murderers. Rapists.”

Well…if he was going to fire her, she might as well say everything she wanted to say.

“They’re still human beings…not science experiments. They deserve a chance at getting better.” Evelyn stamped a foot, immediately regretting the show of anger. The asshole behind the desk would assess the act more closely to a toddler throwing a temper tantrum than an adult expressing her disapproval of his actions.

Dr. Baldwin ran a hand through his dark, wavy hair in frustration. “Those human beings are not going to magically get better by being buddies with Evelyn Walker. You are a nurse. You are not their friend. I want you to do your job, make your rounds, and absolutely nothing more. Understood?”

Her chin lifted even higher. “I understand what you’re saying, yes.”

His eyes narrowed. “You understand, and you will follow my protocol, Evelyn. Be honest with yourself. These patients aren’t leaving anytime soon, and there are damn good reasons for that fact.”

“All the more reason to show them kindness and attempt to keep their humanity alive. We’re all they have now.”

How could he not discern that truth? How could he not care?

Dr. Baldwin took a deep, dramatic breath through his nose and released the air from his mouth in an overly long and equally dramatic exhale. “You will get in step with my program, Evelyn, or you will face disciplinary measures. That is all. You may go.”

Dismissed, Evelyn turned on her heel and exited the asshole’s office.

She still had her job…for now.

Finishing out the day proved difficult, though she was determined not to let her mood be brought low by that heartless man and his overwhelming arrogance. She still couldn’t believe how shortsighted he was. How coldhearted. How obnoxiously arrogant in his belief that his way of taking care of patients was the only way.

He only sat in a chair and talked about their feelings or flicked a wrist and wrote out new prescriptions by the dozens.

That egotistical bastard didn’t have to walk into a criminally insane man’s room by himself, get close enough to give the hands that had committed atrocious acts the medicines they were told to take. He didn’t need to wade into the middle of a fight or find a way to administer a sedative when a patient went berserk.

No…Dr. Philip Baldwin didn’t have to get his hands dirty with patient care, yet the unbelievably insensitive man thought he had the right to tell those who did how to do their jobs.

Well…screw him.

Evelyn smiled even brighter for the rest of her shift. Spoke in an even more pleasant manner to every single person she met.

But it was all a façade that weighed heavy on her shoulders as the day went on. One person could only handle so much, and between the standoff with Dr. Baldwin and the routine care of numerous mentally unwell individuals, Evelyn’s energy drained to a severe level of low.

She, apparently, looked even worse than she felt.

“You okay, hon?” Brenda Daly leaned over the scarred surface of the nurses’ station, her brow furrowed in concern. Brenda was a fellow nurse who also harbored an immense disdain for Dr. Baldwin. She’d worked at Virginia State Hospital for ten years and was only thirty-four, but her graying blonde hair, added to the numerous wrinkles lining her face, proved the physical toll the job extracted.

“I’m sure you’ve been informed about my glorious little meeting with Baldwin?” Evelyn stacked her patient charts together in a methodical manner despite her troubled thoughts. It was one of the things that made her such a good nurse. She could physically do her job no matter the worry swirling through her mind.

“News travels fast.” Brenda’s sheepish reply bordered on the apologetic.

“That man is not fit for his position. He shouldn’t be allowed to deal with anyone or anything with a pulse. He’s cold…heartless. Philip Baldwin would be better off conducting research in a sterile lab by himself.” Evelyn released her pent-up vexation by slapping the charts down on the desk.

It didn’t help.

“I couldn’t agree more.” Brenda gave an affectionate pat to Evelyn’s shoulder as the latter prepared to leave the station for her final rounds. “Hang in there, Ev. The patients love you. You’re an amazing nurse. That’s what matters.”

Evelyn fought the urge to cry.

You still have patients who need you right now. Hold it together.

“Thanks, Brenda. I’m going to finish up.” She gave a small wave and pushed off with her cart and its damn squeaky wheel.

Three steps later, she slipped on the freshly mopped tiled floor, her legs scissoring into a split that her thigh muscles were no longer toned enough to handle. Caught by her cart with a rough thud, Evelyn made a sound that was half groan and half chuckle.

This just isn’t my day.

“So sorry, Evelyn.” The nearby custodian’s apology was immediate and sincere as he wrung his hands together before helping her to her feet. “Meant to put up the wet floor sign.”

She took inventory of her legs, hoping to God almighty and the baby Jesus that she hadn’t split her pants in the process. “I’m fine. No worries. Par for the course.”

As she began pushing the cart again, this time limping a little, she held her head up high.

I will finish out this day just like every other. No slippery floor or asshole medical director will bring me down.

Evelyn headed for her next patient’s room. Justin Black.

She liked Justin. He was one of the very few residents who she believed had a chance at full rehabilitation. Of course, he would still have to stand trial for his crimes even if the doctors were able to heal his mind.

That was a hard truth. But Evelyn had empathy for the young man. He had, after all, been raised by The Preacher—Douglas Kilroy. And worse yet, he was Kilroy’s biological relative. DNA was inescapable.

Nature…

Nurture…

The poor child had been born into a world where the firm and unforgiving cards were stacked against him to towering heights.

After a polite knock, she opened the door to Justin’s room and entered with only her clipboard. No meds needed this evening. Justin received all his doses during the morning rounds, and he always dutifully swallowed the pills without a hint of fight.

“How has your day been?” Her naturally warm smile returned, firmly in place regardless of the day’s upset.

Dr. Baldwin couldn’t outlaw smiling.

“Good.” Justin held his knees to his chest. “My meeting with Dr. Trent is tomorrow. I’m very excited for her to help me get better.” He began to rock, a slow rhythmic movement that could gain speed depending on his level of agitation.

She was used to this habit, one of his coping mechanisms.

“The BAU agent?” Evelyn scribbled on her chart. “That is exciting. Anything I can do for you? Your dinner was okay?”

“Acceptable.” Justin grinned, and Evelyn joined him. His rocking slowed, an encouraging sign that he wouldn’t escalate.

“Good to know.” She was pleased to catch Justin in such high spirits. The dark-haired young man was in peak physical condition, and she held high hopes for his full recovery.

All we have to do is fix that mind.

As she continued to chat with him, Justin calmed…almost serene. Evelyn was convinced in her heart of hearts that Justin Black was going to get out of this place. Her instincts supported this upbeat certainty as she included his visible positivity in her observational notes.

Turning to leave, Evelyn shot Justin one last grin. “Great luck at your appointment tomorrow.”

He smiled back at her, but just as she grabbed the doorknob, he called out, “Nurse Evelyn.” His voice changed with the words, and Evelyn swiveled to meet Justin’s gaze. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck bristled as she looked into now vacant eyes.

“Be careful out there, Evelyn. The world is a dangerous place.”

Why did his smile suddenly seem like a malicious leer? Why wasn’t he even blinking?

Forcing herself to refocus and pull away from his magnetizing sapphire gaze, she left the room, giving the door a swift pull.

Click!

She sighed with relief. Automated locks were a godsend on occasion.

Maybe Justin Black wasn’t such a likely candidate for rehabilitation after all.

She decided to forego her routine last glance through the observation window of the door and pushed the aluminum cart hastily down the hallway.

That horrible smile.

I was wrong. I was wrong about Justin.

Of course, she couldn’t let his behavior derail her. How ridiculous would that be, considering her place of employment? She had been privy to far too many disturbing things to be this terrified of one young man’s smile.

And yet…her fear was palpable.

* * *

Darkness.

Evelyn stared out the sole window of the nurses’ station. Barred like all the rest, the ancient panes gave view to a dull, inky evening sky. Virginia winters, especially in January, ensured that by the time Evelyn’s shift was over, the sun had completely abandoned the day.

She decidedly disliked this time of year.

Following her normal routine, Evelyn entered the employee restroom, locked the door, and peeled off her uniform. Fresh jeans and a soft sweater provided a sense of separation from the previous ten hours.

The germs, dirt, stress, and sadness stayed in the hospital where they belonged.

She walked to the punch out clock, typed her code, and retrieved her coat and purse from the nurses’ closet.

Home. Forget Baldwin’s lecture. Forget Justin’s smile. I’m going home.

Evelyn walked to the stairwell exit, which was her habitual custom for making her way to the parking garage. Stretching her legs helped relieve a bit of the pent-up tension amassed in her muscles throughout the day.

Each landing was lit by a single low-watt bulb screwed into the ceiling…on any normal evening. Tonight, of course, the lights were out. She fiddled with the switch by the entry.

No luck.

Was this some type of joke? Was she being Punk’d? What else could possibly go wrong in this godforsaken building?

Just some faulty wiring. Not a new problem for this ancient dinosaur of a hospital.

Evelyn went up and down these steps so often she was confident that she could maneuver them blindfolded. Lights be damned. She was going home.

She traversed the first flight of stairs, beginning to breathe easier as she stepped onto the landing.

“Just get out of this building,” she lectured herself in a harsh whisper. “Bad days happen. Tomorrow is a new—”

A hand clamped over her mouth.

Even before adrenaline hit her system, Evelyn launched an immediate struggle against the powerful grip. An arm curled around her throat like a snake and lifted her off her feet. A punch to her temple followed, annihilating her strength to battle.

She inhaled the stink of the man as she was forced to lean against her attacker, her vision dark around the edges. She tried to strike out, tried to claw at his eyes, but she could barely lift an arm as he dragged her backward.

Through her mental fog, Evelyn remembered her personal duress alarm, her only weapon against a hospital full of mentally deranged criminals. She wore the device for every second of every shift…and she always removed the life saver when switching clothes at the end of the day.

Purse. It’s in your purse. You have to…have to…

Her right hand dug in the satchel hung across her body while her left pulled at the relentless grip of her assailant’s arm. The temple blow left her mind dazed, her body feeble.

Evelyn’s instincts screamed that none of that mattered. You must fight!

Regardless of what her mind desperately wanted her to do, she was no match for the physical strength overwhelming her.

The attacker drug her through a doorway and into a dark utility closet.

Grab something…hit…you can hit…you have to…

Realization hit her like a fist. She wasn’t in a closet at all.

Cables. Gears.

She was on top of an elevator car.

Understanding intensified her panic and horror, and Evelyn desperately lashed out, trying to injure her assailant with her arms, fists, clawing nails. She kicked and scuffled. Opened her mouth to scream.

Two gloved hands wrapped around her neck.

Act! If you don’t, you will die right here, right now!

No matter what she did or how hard she struggled, the hands squeezed without mercy, preventing the slightest bit of air from reaching her lungs.

You’re going to…going to…

Evelyn Walker’s world went dark.

Chapter Two

The Booby Trap really wasn’t so bad when Dr. Autumn Trent considered that the world was full of war zones and natural disasters.

And cults. Baby-snatchers. Severed hands in swamps.

She gazed around the Florida strip club, focusing in on the oversized disco ball spinning rays of neon light onto the stage below. If she tilted her head just right, she could even make herself believe that it resembled a high-fashion runway.

But in The Booby Trap, the models were naked, and they didn’t walk so much as they gyrated around tall metal poles.

Autumn spotted a platinum blonde holding on to a glittery pole with nothing but her thighs. The, um, talented woman hung completely upside down, breasts flailing as she lip-synced to one of Autumn’s favorite songs…“Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This.”

Impressive.

Even as Annie Lennox wrapped her in the warm embrace of her voice, Autumn fought a sudden desire to turn and run through the door. She didn’t. She gave herself a mental shake instead.

None of these women mattered. Nor did the men leering at them. Boobs and butts didn’t factor into her being in this building at all. She was here for one thing and one thing only…her sister.

But damn…how did Sarah end up working in a place like this?

Not now.

Autumn didn’t have the time or patience to crawl down that mental rabbit hole. Now, she had a mission. Find Sarah. Save Sarah. Once that was accomplished, Autumn could ask all the questions she wanted.

She glanced at her watch. The airplane heading back to Virginia would take off at the crack ass of dawn. She didn’t have time to overthink why she was here. She didn’t even have time to think about why she was in Florida in the first place.

Dead women. Missing babies.

Aiden Parrish had asked Autumn to consult on the case just moments after she learned that her sister might be in Central Florida. Though she believed wholly in science, she also knew that some things couldn’t be explained. And just as Autumn could feel a person’s emotions through a simple touch, she knew that meaningful coincidences could occur through the magic of synchronicity.

Two birds, one stone.

Or so she’d hoped.

Autumn and the team had managed to take the bastard who was killing pregnant women down. Heck, Autumn had jumped from a helicopter in the attempt to save a baby. So why was she afraid to walk into this cozy little establishment and ask for her sister?

She even had her two best friends as backup.

A quick glance at Special Agent Winter Black confirmed her premonition that the scene would be entirely too ridiculous to fuel the jealous flair the woman had displayed just before entering this lovely establishment. Winter’s lips were pressed together, and Autumn knew the dedicated FBI agent was fighting off a strong fit of nervous laughter.

To Winter’s right, Special Agent Noah Dalton’s head was moving around like a dodgeball as he apparently attempted to avoid looking at any and all naked body parts in the vicinity. His girlfriend was less than six inches away from him, after all, and she was armed.

While noble, Noah’s efforts were in vain. Breasts were everywhere. All different sizes and colors—even a few oddly nonsymmetrical pairs.

She assumed Winter would have to give her boyfriend a free pass for this train wreck.

Autumn would have found the view embarrassing and humorous had she not known that her little sister was somewhere amongst the bare-skinned ladies. That fact effectively kept her straight-faced and sober.

She let the initial shock pass and refocused on her mission. A purple-wigged waitress, who at the very least had a bikini top on, leaned against the bar and eyed them with cautious reservation.

“Let’s sit,” Autumn ordered, choosing a wide cushioned booth shaped like a crescent moon.

Winter and Noah obediently followed her. The trio slid across cracked vinyl seating that was so sticky it made her wish for an entire crate of Lysol spray to fall from the sky.

Autumn fought the overwhelming urge to grab the nearest Booby Trap employee by the arm and gain any knowledge of Sarah that might be readily available.

She wouldn’t seize anyone, of course. But being aware that she had the ability to get answers to questions she hadn’t yet asked was sometimes a curse she could hardly bear.

Autumn’s abusive father had gifted her with a traumatic brain injury when she was only ten. Following the consequential brain surgery required to save her, Autumn awoke to an alien world where she possessed a sixth sense she’d never asked for nor wanted.

A simple touch to or from another human sent instantaneous currents of information from the individual’s mind into her own. The thoughts and emotions often overwhelmed her when she was young, making her reluctant to physically connect with anyone.

She hadn’t viewed her special ability as a positive until her college days, when a certain high-stakes incident showed her how her “superpower” could be used to help a planet full of broken souls. The experience had also made her innately curious about how the mind worked and what led some people to lives of crime while others never ventured down that path.

Because she wanted to learn everything she could about the mind, Autumn followed her bachelor’s degree with a master’s in criminal psychology before deciding to earn her Ph.D. in forensic psychology. A Juris Doctorate made her feel as if her education was well rounded.

Upon her graduation, her degrees made her a marketable commodity that helped her land her first job with a six-figure salary. And now, the FBI wanted her on their team. With the Bureau, her unusual “talent” could be harnessed as an advantageous yet silent instrument of justice.

And even with all that education behind her, she still hadn’t asked about her sister.

Pull it together.

The waitress wasted no time walking straight to their table. Her hips swung with considerable flair as she approached them. “Take your order?” Vivid violet eyes—surely the result of colored contacts—flitted from Autumn to Winter to Noah, where they lingered long enough for Winter to narrow her own vivid blue eyes.

“We’re actually here for…Ginger Snap.” Heat crept up Autumn’s neck as she mentioned her sister’s stripper name. The waitress, whose name tag fittingly read Violet Star, just stared at her. “Could you let her know she has some visitors?”

Violet chomped on her gum, giving the trio a suspicious glare. “No order?”

Autumn glanced at her friends. “Three colas would be great.”

“You want sodas?” Violet adjusted her bikini strap. Her gaze turned dubious, then hateful. “What are y’all? Cops or somethin’?”

Technically no, but close enough. You’re a sharp one, Violet Star.

No response was needed as Violet put two and two together. Purple eyes wide, she shimmied away, disappearing behind a door that Autumn imagined led to the manager’s office. The agents barely had time to grin at each other before Violet was back with a man who was nearly as round as he was tall.

Curly black chest hair popped out of his cheap satin button-down shirt like a bush. He was mostly bald but still had the George Costanza hairline growing thick and proud. Graced with multiple gold chain necklaces, a ludicrously large gold bracelet, and several gold rings, the man perpetuated his own stereotype remarkably well.

“I’m Charlie. The manager. Can I help you folks with somethin’?” Charlie gave them a dark-eyed glare that indicated he had intentions to help them with absolutely nothing.

“Just getting some refreshments, Charlie. Hot day out there.” Winter batted her eyelashes, gazing up at Charlie with innocent, brilliant blues.

Charlie rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, this ain’t really a soda kinda joint, and I’m sure that’s pretty obvious. Why don’t y’all roll outta here and find yourselves a McDonald’s? Soda for days, that place.” Autumn caught the glint of his golden front tooth decorating his grin.

“Okay, Charlie, ya got us.” Noah bowed his head, as though confessing to a priest. He gave the manager a sheepish, guilty glance. “We don’t really want sodas. We’ve got a slight obsession goin’ on for Ginger Snap.”

“All three of ya?” Charlie raised a thick black eyebrow as he peeked at Autumn and then Winter. He licked his lips.

“All three of us. Could we please visit with Miss Snap…er…Ginger?” Noah pressed his palms together as he begged.

Charlie turned to Violet Star. “Go get ‘er.”

Autumn bit her tongue until she tasted blood.

This was the moment. She was going to be face to face with Sarah in the flesh for the first time since—

Ginger Snap sashayed to their table.

Autumn had known there was a possibility that she wouldn’t quite recognize her baby sister, even if she and Sarah were still similar enough to confuse that drunk jackass at the trailer park a couple nights before. The man had been convinced that Autumn was Sarah, but a fifth of whiskey could twist a lot of things around in a man’s mind.

However, this woman was one hundred percent not Sarah. Smooth ebony skin and creamy chocolate eyes blasted the fact without a single spoken word.

She was, however, wearing a long, red wig.

Charlie smiled, presenting them with the object of their obsession.

“How many Ginger Snaps are there in this place?” Annoyance dripped from each of Winter’s words before she turned an icy glare at the manager. “You have to recycle your stage names, Charlie?”

Realizing he hadn’t just pleased three paying customers after all, Charlie’s face turned surly. “Lotta people got a thing for redheads.” He side-glanced at Autumn. “Evonne fills in when the original Ginger bails…and that’s all the damn time. Guess you already figured that out for yourself. Fuckin’ redheads.”

Autumn’s shoulders slumped. Evonne was a beautiful woman.

But she wasn’t Sarah.

Charlie leaned down, giving Autumn a friendly eyebrow wiggle. “You got any dancing experience, honey?”

Autumn stared blankly back at the repulsively hairy beast before her. Disappointment rendered her speechless.

Winter, on the other hand, was shooting fireballs at Charlie with her eyes, and Noah had managed to turn what started as a very loud laugh into an incredibly convincing cough.

“How about this, Charlie? Ginger got any friends we could talk to?” Noah pushed back to the issue at hand.

Charlie’s face scrunched with confusion. “Talk to?” He threw a hand up and snorted. “Fork over fifty bucks and you can ‘talk’ to Ginger Snap’s bestie, Elvis’s grandma, and the Queen of friggin’ England. For exactly fifteen minutes.”

Noah’s wallet was on the table in a hot second.

“You’ll be wantin’ Angel Devine. She’s tight with Ginger.” Violet waved a hand, indicating they should follow her.

Evonne huffed, clearly offended by the dismissal.

“You’re very pretty,” Autumn assured her, earning a wink from her sister’s fill-in before following after Winter, Noah, and Violet Star.

The waitress led them down a narrow hallway that reeked of certain blatant, obvious human smells that Autumn refused to identify. The velvet red carpet was bunched in places, ripped in others, and seemed to be a thousand years old.

Violet drew back the curtain on a room to her right and ushered them in. “Only one chair. Guess you’re taking turns.” She shot Autumn a cold smile and pulled the curtain shut behind her.

Noah promptly sat on the metal folding chair. “How’s anybody supposed to enjoy anything on this dang contraption? Reminds me of high school detention.”

Winter placed her hands on her hips. “How often were you in there, Dalton?”

Autumn chuckled, but Noah didn’t have a chance to defend himself before the topless platinum blonde with the impressive thigh muscles whipped through the curtain.

She appeared to be taken off guard by the extra persons in her assigned “one-on-one” space but recovered like a champion. “I like to watch too.” She shrugged and grinned devilishly at Autumn and Winter before straddling Noah like a horse without the slightest warning. “I’m Angel Divine, sweetheart. What’s your name?”

The question was asked amidst the forceful grinds of her nether regions against Noah’s body. Angel’s one-hundred-percent real boobs flopped generously in Agent Dalton’s face, which had turned a shade of red that rivaled Ginger Snap’s wig.

“Vanilla,” Noah gasped, taking on the safe word Aiden Parrish used on a case not too long ago.

Winter turned away, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Autumn almost joined her but instead took pity on the stunned and horrified man trapped in the detention chair.

“Angel, we’re actually here to ask you about Sarah.” Autumn’s use of a common name found on actual birth certificates snagged Angel’s attention.

The stripper stood, abandoning her attack on Noah altogether. “Sarah? Is she okay?” As if actual conversation made her feel naked, she folded her arms across her breasts.

“Well, that’s what I hoped you could tell me.” Autumn’s pulse raced as she absorbed Angel’s concern—no touch needed.

“Oh. Well…she was really freaked out cause one of her Johns told her there were cops searchin’ for her in the trailer park a few nights back or somethin’. I tried to calm her down. I mean, if a cop wants to find you, they’re gonna find you, ya know?”

Autumn glanced at Winter and assumed they were both thinking the same thing.

You’d be surprised how untrue that actually is.

“Anyway, the police never showed up again, but she was still freaked. I had a feelin’ she might run. She didn’t show up for work today so…I guess I was right.” Angel’s face was somber as she cocked her head and studied Autumn. “Ya know, you look a lot like Sarah. How crazy is that?”

Autumn fought back tears of frustrated disbelief. She had not only managed to be unsuccessful in finding her sister but appeared to be the sole reason Sarah purposely went off radar. Again.

I thwarted my own damn plan. I ruined this.

Angel, not yet aware of the rather obvious fact that this threesome of customers could possibly be the “cops” searching for her friend, stared down at Noah. “You still want me to finish this for ya? You paid in full, hon.”

Noah flew out of the chair like a rocket missile. “I’m good. Thanks. Have a nice, uh, day…night…whatever.” He kept his eyes low and exited the tiny room with remarkable swiftness.

Winter wrapped an arm around Autumn and guided her through the narrow doorway and out toward their SUV.

“Thanks, Angel. You get an A for effort,” Winter called over her shoulder.

Autumn knew Winter’s attempt at humor was forced. Connected as they were, the disappointment flowed between them in gut-wrenching pulse-waves.

“This doesn’t mean you won’t find her. You know that, right?”

 Winter meant for the words to be comforting, but Autumn no longer believed finding Sarah was in her near future. According to the truths flowing from Winter’s arm around her shoulder, neither did she.


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Autumn's Rage by Mary Stone

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