A Taste of... AUTUMN'S WARNING
Mickey Fletcher slowed his convertible to a crawl and switched off his lights as his home came into view. Tree branches hung over the darkened driveway like giant clawed hands clutching at the night sky. Moonlight gleamed off the windows of the sprawling American Tudor Revival mansion, and thick rows of evergreens lined the property.
The air felt still. He saw no signs of peril or mischief.
The steeply pitched gabled roof and multipaned casement windows had always reminded him of a storybook house. Tonight, the home’s enormous black silhouette against the moonlit sky didn’t exude its familiar fairy-tale vibe.
More like a nightmare.
The day he’d feared might have finally arrived. Or maybe some kids thought they’d play a joke on the guy living alone in the big mansion. Mickey and his older brother Kyle had played their share of practical jokes back in the day—doorbell ditching, toilet papering a friend’s front yard.
But that was just kids being kids. This…feels worse.
Fighting off a shudder, Mickey inhaled the familiar spiciness wafting from the passenger seat. His boss, Jake, had sent him home with an entire leftover pepperoni pie all to himself. On a normal night, he’d be in heaven.
“Tonight’s different.” As he whispered the words, Mickey shifted the car into park and placed a hand over his coat pocket. He traced the outline of the miniature cross he’d found in his front yard that afternoon. Just a couple of inches tall, it’d stood straight up in the grass beside the driveway where he couldn’t have missed it as he headed out to work.
Whoever put it there had wanted him to find it. He kept touching the thing during his shift, hoping each time it would disappear so he could focus on running pies around town and helping out in the kitchen. Jake probably let him go early because he knew Mickey had something distracting him, something worse than a final exam or a girl who just wanted to “stay friends” instead of taking it to the next level.
Grabbing the pizza, he slid out of his car and approached the house, shoulders tensed and stomach twisted into knots. “What does it mean? What in the hell does it mean?”
It can’t be anything good. Somebody knows or found out, and they left you that message so you’d know too. That’s how these people work.
Mickey fumbled with his keys while balancing the pizza box on his left hand. He pushed the front door open to an empty foyer, wishing, not for the first time, that his mom was still alive to greet him.
There was no one, though. As usual, he was completely alone.
Dropping the pizza box on the entrance table, Mickey kicked the front door shut behind him. He attempted to ignore the heavy thud echoing against the high ceilings.
Mom left the house to us, but I’m the only one who wanted it, because it was hers. To keep her close. To keep her with me.
Tammy Fletcher had always had a soft smile and warm hug waiting for Mickey and his two older siblings, Kyle and Ann. She’d adopted them when they were all very little—he’d only been two years old—but had passed away six months ago from a heart attack.
Losing his mother just as his senior year of high school commenced had changed everything. At eighteen, he was legally an adult.
Legally, yeah. Like that makes you one overnight.
Days spent shuffling from class to class and getting bogged down with homework before jetting off to his job at Jake’s pizza place continually reminded Mickey he was just a kid.
A kid with no mom or dad. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her.
Worse, he hadn’t ever managed to ask his mom the questions burning in his gut about his biological parents. Seven years ago, Mickey’s sister had spilled the beans on who their father had been…
A notorious Mob boss.
Mickey still couldn’t believe it. Like the gangsters they made movies and TV shows about. Even more unbelievable, he’d learned that his real mom and dad had been killed in a famous Mob massacre sixteen years ago, along with all their bodyguards.
Tammy might’ve taken it all to her grave, but Ann found a box in the attic full of newspaper clippings and photo albums. She’d gone straight to Tammy, demanding answers. Their adoptive mother told Ann everything about their childhood, about who their parents had been. Mickey wasn’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop Ann from telling him all about it as soon as he got home from Little League practice.
He’d walked in the door and known something was wrong. Tammy sat at the kitchen table in tears, and his brother and sister were shouting up a storm in the living room. Mickey headed straight upstairs and closed his bedroom door. Ann stormed in a minute later, saying he needed to get his ass up to the attic and take a look for himself.
“You need to see who we really are. We’re Mafia kids, Mick. Our family was powerful.”
Mickey hadn’t had any interest in the mementos, not if all they could do was prove his dead parents were criminals. While Ann and Kyle had found the revelation exciting, Mickey had only wanted to understand how they’d ended up with Tammy, who Ann claimed had been their parents’ maid.
Maybe she took us into hiding, like protective custody.
Mickey shook himself from his memories. The antique cherrywood grandfather clock ticked loudly against the silence, as if to magnify Tammy Fletcher’s absence. However safe Mickey might feel in his home, he was still just a kid with no one to protect him and no idea how to stay safe from any mobsters who might want to hurt him.
The one person who’d kept him safe his whole life was gone, and she’d stay gone forever.
Mickey had been quietly happy that Ann and Kyle insisted on buying their own homes with their inheritance. Tammy left an impressive chunk of change to each of her three children. Mickey’s siblings took the money and ran with it. He didn’t miss Kyle’s mean-spirited humor or Ann’s bitchy attitude, but it might’ve been nice to hear their voices in the house again tonight.
Especially after finding the trinket from hell on his lawn.
“Too bad.” Mickey yanked off his coat and tossed it on an armchair. “You’re alone. Deal with it.”
He headed down the pine-planked hallway to the kitchen, yo-yoing between a giant glass of ice water or a cold can of soda to accompany his dinner.
Go with the soda. You can’t eat pizza without—
“Hello, Mr. Fletcher.”
Mickey froze in the doorway. A ski-masked stranger sat on a kitchen barstool, staring at him. The intruder held a gun in one hand and waved with the other.
“Who the hell are you? What do you want?”
Even as he asked the question, he knew he’d been right. Today was the day he had always feared, ever since Ann found that box in the attic.
The man tilted his head. “I want the world to be a safe place again. A place where families can grow and thrive without worrying about the violent activities of organized crime. Is that such a bad thing?”
Mickey winced as if he’d been gut punched. This. This was why he desperately needed to put space between himself and his family…or what was left of it.
“Listen. I’m not a criminal. I kn-know what my father was, and I’m guessin’ he must’ve pissed you off before he died. But I’m not that kind of a person, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever he did to you.”
“Oh my.” The intruder rapped his fingers across the marble countertop. “I saw this going many ways, but I certainly didn’t expect an apology from such a polite and well-spoken young man.”
Nodding, Mickey desperately tried to build upon the redeeming moment. “Because I’m nothing like him. I didn’t even know him. I’m going away to college next fall to be a surgeon. I want to save lives. I’d never hurt anyone.”
The man sat up straighter, his interest seemingly piqued. “Fascinating. The son of a Mob lord desires to bring honor to the family name. True honor. Do you even know your bloodline’s actual surname?”
Mickey took a deep breath, attempting to calm his trembling body. “I…I didn’t want to know. My sister said we were Mafia kids, and I decided right then and there that I didn’t need any more details.”
Not true. You had dozens of questions for Mom. You were waiting for the right time to ask, but you never found that time, and now she’s gone.
“Fabbri. Your father was a scum-of-the-earth monster, and his atrocities flow through your veins. You are a Fabbri, and it’s your birthright to rise to the same echelon of evil. Your destiny.”
Mickey’s gaze slid to the back door at the far end of the kitchen and returned to the gun in the intruder’s hand, the barrel fixed on him. He doubted he’d make it out of the house alive if he ran.
Fight him. Take his weapon.
Even as he thought it, Mickey knew his chances of overpowering the intruder were slim. The kids at school called him Shoestring Fletcher for good reason.
“I promise you,” Mickey spoke the words like a plea, “I’m a good guy. I’ll never be anything like my father.”
The man smiled and stood, taking slow steps toward him. “Well. You’re right about that much. You’re never going to be anything at all.”
Mickey backed away on shaky legs as the menacing figure chuckled behind his mask.
If you run, you’ll probably die. But if you don’t run, you’ll definitely die.
He spun a one-eighty, expecting the sharp blast of a gunshot and the pain of a bullet to tear through his body. Mickey took a single step before a heavy clunk across the back of his head sent him to the floor.
He tried to crawl but couldn’t seem to make his body move. “W-why? I h-h-haven’t done a-anything. This…this isn’t fair.”
Hot breath enveloped his ear. “Oh, Mickey. It’s more than fair.” The intruder dropped his voice to a guttural whisper. “‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’”
Mickey attempted to focus on any one object as the house blurred to gray.
Not like this. It can’t all end like th—
A second blow to the head fell, abrupt and brutal. Like a star going supernova, an explosion of pain consumed his senses before the world disappeared into black oblivion.
Autumn Trent yanked her hoodie drawstrings, tightening her defense against the winter chill as she jogged through her boyfriend’s suburban neighborhood.
Open land gets more wind. Reason five thousand eight hundred-ninety-six not to move out of the city.
Of course, it wasn’t her decision to buy a house in God’s country. That had been all Aiden Parrish. Autumn pictured her boyfriend as she had left him five minutes ago. Staring at the coffee maker, watching the drips with sleep-puffed blue eyes, his light-brown waves askew.
Had he bought that house intending to replicate the lives of the others in this cookie-cutter neighborhood? Was it a subconscious attempt to obtain the calm and safety he’d lacked throughout his childhood?
Or was he trying to run away?
Feet pounding the cement, Autumn returned the wave of a man climbing into his minivan with pristinely ironed slacks and a button-down collar peeking from his tweed overcoat. His pretty wife, curlers in her blond hair and a baby in her arms, watched from the front door with a wide smile.
It’s the mother-effing American Dream come to life.
While not every fence was made of pickets—some were shiny steel posts with others fancy, state-of-the-art wood panels—all were beautiful and served to protect manicured yards. Even during the winter, Aiden’s neighbors took noticeable care in the presentation of their homes.
Autumn swiped at a renegade strand of red hair, her breathing growing more rapid as the Stepford palaces whizzed by. “If you’re hoping to fit me into one of these boxes, Aiden, you’ve got the wrong girl.”
She wasn’t against the idea of marriage and hadn’t ruled out having children, though her endometriosis did pose a potential complication to the process, but she was fully aware that life as a stay-at-home soccer mom wasn’t in the cards.
Special agents for the FBI didn’t often manage to pull off stellar personal lives. The job demanded the better part of their dedication and didn’t take no for an answer. She and Aiden, the supervisory special agent for the Behavioral Analysis Unit, had somewhat cheated the system with their relationship. They were together on and off the clock.
A romantic couple and a professional team.
But that’s not all sunshine and roses either.
Flashes of the last case came back to her in aggravating spurts. Aiden, trying to keep her on lunch break and away from the field office as a high-stakes situation developed. Aiden, ordering her not to pull any hero moves as they neared the apex of the case…in front of her colleagues.
Like some helicopter boyfriend-boss hybrid.
Coming to a halt at an intersection that served as a school bus stop, Autumn tried to envision herself or Aiden hastily dropping off a tiny human with a backpack before jetting into the city toward the Richmond Field Office.
Pack a juice box, inspect a brutalized corpse. Sign a field trip permission slip, try to crawl inside the demented mind of a serial killer. I see nothing wrong with this picture. Nothing at all.
Once the intersection cleared, Autumn picked up speed, ramping her jog to a sprint for the last five blocks.
She, her Pomeranian mix, Toad, and her orange tabby, Peach, had come to stay at Aiden’s for very good reason. The horrors of their last case had left her city apartment a wholly unappealing option.
A serial killer murdering your pet sitter and stealing the key to your apartment and making herself at home? No wonder you can’t sit still.
And even though Athaliah was dead, Autumn couldn’t shake the physical and psychological intrusions the woman had made on her life. Still, the city was where she and Aiden had spent the lion’s share of their relationship, and Autumn already sensed the tug in her chest to return to the brick-and-mortar urban experience.
Even with the sirens, traffic, and chaos, her desire for city life was real and surprisingly strong. She’d only been at Aiden’s for two nights, and though the Inspection Division hadn’t placed her on desk duty after her initial interview, the last case wasn’t closed yet. The review was ongoing, mandatory time off was likely, and no matter what she’d said about her current state of mind to keep her in the field for the time being, she wasn’t okay.
Not in any sense of the word.
But maybe I’m okay enough to go home. I just want to go home.
She rounded the last block and spotted Aiden on his front porch. No doubt he’d been surveying the street for any subtle signs of mayhem or trouble. So unlike his neighbors who went about their days following their routines, blissfully unaware of the dangers that lurked in even the safest suburbs. Aiden appeared as out of place in the neighborhood as Autumn felt, and the fact was oddly comforting.
Neither of us belongs here. Not really.
Aiden waved and waited as she covered the last few yards and made her way up the front walk. His crisp suit and shiny leather shoes did nothing to hide the plethora of scrapes decorating his face. Another souvenir from their previous case.
“How was the jog?”
Autumn planted a gentle kiss on his cheek. “Cold.”
Aiden scanned her over as though she might’ve incurred bullet wounds or broken bones in the last twenty minutes. “I’m going in early for my meeting. You sure you’ll be okay out here by yourself?”
She fought a massive eye roll. “I’ll manage, Boss.”
“I’m being serious.” Aiden placed a hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”
Jolts of concern coursed through her veins at Aiden’s touch, causing a sudden avalanche of resentment within her.
At just ten years of age, Autumn’s abusive biological father had delivered a blow with a resulting injury so severe that emergency brain surgery was required to save her life. And ever since that procedure, she’d been different. The simple touch of another human being relayed their current emotional state in a surge that she had absolutely no control over.
She sometimes thought of the sixth sense as a curse, and in this moment, her bitter resentment toward her ability and Aiden’s overwhelming concern meshed together, blurring into a hazy jumble until she couldn’t tell which she hated more. His relentless need to protect her as though she were a delicate porcelain doll on the verge of shattering, or her uncanny ability to recognize the full, tempestuous scope of his anxieties.
“I’m fine. One hundred percent.”
Creases deepened on Aiden’s forehead. “I don’t believe that for a second. I’ll see you at the office.” He squeezed her arm and kissed her lips before leaving her alone on the porch and driving away.
Autumn entered the house, controlling her movements until the door was shut and locked behind her. Still pissed, she yanked her shoe off and chucked it at the wall.
A visible scuff on Aiden’s snow-white walls glared back at her. Autumn couldn’t imagine a reality in which the SSA wouldn’t take notice of this intolerable blemish.
Whatever. I’ll clean it later.
Toad’s nails clacked against the wooden floor as he raced toward his distressed mistress. Autumn dropped to give him some reassuring chin scratches.
“It’s okay, buddy. I’m not mad at you.”
The poor dog was already on edge after being forced to switch homes, and his feline counterpart had chosen to hole up under Aiden’s bed, only showing her face for fresh food or unavoidable runs to the litter box. Peach wouldn’t so much as let Autumn give her an affectionate stroke.
They don’t want to be here either. I should take them home.
Autumn squeezed her eyes shut.
You’re permanently down one pet sitter. Who’s going to take Toad out for walks while you’re working those insane, unpredictable hours?
The temporary solution had been to put a pee pad by Aiden’s back door. Toad had used it exactly one time, and Autumn guessed that the little guy was holding it in as much as he possibly could.
“Unacceptable. That’s hard on your tiny body.”
Autumn spared a few minutes to let Toad run around the front yard and relieve himself on Aiden’s lawn. The sun had melted off what little snow had recently fallen. Toad finished his business and bounded up the steps to Autumn.
She patted his head on the way back inside, wondering how she could manage to care for her pets out here. The odds of SSA Aiden Parrish ever trusting a neighbor with a key to his home—even for the purpose of walking Toad—were next to none. Especially after what had happened to Leslie, Autumn’s former dog walker.
As she headed for the shower, a bird whistle sounded from her hoodie pocket. Autumn whipped it out, smiling at the ringtone she’d assigned her younger sister, yet wishing she could avoid answering the call.
“How can I help you on this fine morning, Miss Nichol?”
Sarah snorted. “I’m not sure how fine it is. I stepped in gum on my way to work. But that’s not important. I wanted to check in on you. Make sure you’re okay.”
Autumn set the phone on the bathroom counter, switching it to speaker before yanking her sweatshirt off in frustration. “I’m fine. Not great, but good, considering what the team just went through. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Recently, Sarah had been spending more time with Autumn’s colleague, Special Agent Keaton Holland. While Autumn had given Sarah the basics of their last case—the Nightmare—it was likely Keaton had shared more specific details with her sister.
Autumn wished he wouldn’t say anything at all but understood that the two were becoming close. After everything Sarah had been through, it was nice to think she had someone like Keaton to confide in. Their relationship status still fell into the undefined category, but Autumn didn’t doubt Keaton truly cared for her only sibling.
“I will always worry about you.” Sarah’s firm retort rang like an oath. “And I’m not so sure I believe you’re ‘good’ or anything close to it.”
Of course you don’t believe me. Apparently, no one does. But you’re not getting anything else out of me. Not right now.
Autumn turned the shower on. “Lucky for me, I don’t have time to convince you otherwise. I’ll call you after work tonight, okay?”
Autumn finished undressing and stepped into the warm cascade. She allowed herself to relax, hoping the water would wash away her troubles. But as her walls came down, the memories crept in.
“Would you like for me to kill him, Agent Trent? Or maybe you’d prefer to do the honors?”
Autumn couldn’t forget the way Athaliah’s dishwater-brown hair swirled as she looked back and forth between Autumn and the man she claimed was Autumn’s father.
“But it wasn’t him.”
She rested her forehead against the shower wall, envisioning the crimson spray emitting from the man’s head as Athaliah pulled the trigger. Despite the lack of logic in the moment, part of her had believed Jeffrey Nichol was tied to that chair. And watching him die had torn open a world of pain Autumn had subconsciously been harboring for nineteen years.
She’d learned how her father met his actual end shortly after the gunshot, and the revelation had sent a darkness creeping through her heart and soul. In part because Autumn felt he’d deserved his horrible fate…but also, even if only for a brief moment, she’d mourned his loss.
You rushed to the man you believed was your father. You cradled his damn head in your lap. You shed tears for that man. Tears he didn’t deserve.
Pounding her fist against the tile, Autumn shook as she held in a scream. She hated Jeffrey Nichol for his cruelty. His inability to love her. And she hated herself for her inability to cease loving him.
“You’re dead now. You’re gone, and no one will miss you. I’m relieved. I’m glad you’re dead.”
Despite the conflicting emotions in her heart, she was aware that, in the very depths of her soul, she meant the words. He deserved to die in that alley, drunk and homeless and choking on his own vomit. He’d earned the fate by harming her and Sarah so severely at such tender ages.
The man Athaliah had shot in the forest hadn’t deserved anything that happened to him.
Autumn envisioned Athaliah grinning and taunting like the sadistic psychopath she was.
“So kill me. Do it.”
The young woman had been an absolute minion of Satan, and Autumn wasn’t just relieved Athaliah was dead or that she herself had shot and killed the delusional sadist.
“I’m happy you’re dead. Happy. Just as happy as I am about killing Adam Latham.” A tear slipped down her cheek, mixing with the rivulets of falling water. “And damn you both for showing me who I am. What I am.”
Autumn sank to the shower floor, water cooling on her skin as minutes passed.
Athaliah was right. There is a monster inside of me. And what happens if…what happens when I can no longer control it?