A Taste of... Winter's Curse 

Chapter One

Ashlyn Freitas was running late for work, but she stopped and bought her usual Starbucks nonfat decaf latte anyway. What was the good of working your way up to branch manager if you couldn’t come in a few minutes late once in a while?

Vanilla-scented steam wafted up from her cup, and she sipped at the hot coffee on her way out the door. Her blue, sensible-height heels clacked out a staccato tattoo on the concrete sidewalk as she made her way next door to the American Bank and Trust.

Lenny, the aging security guard, beat her there as usual. His buttons strained against his dark blue shirt as he sat up in his chair in a rush, brushing Pop-Tarts crumbs from his belly with a sheepish smile. He got up from his usual post, where he lounged in a chair beside the door. He was nothing if not consistent.

Ashlyn gave him a cheerful hello as he unlocked the front door and waved her through. He grinned wide enough to show a missing back molar. “Good morning, boss lady.”

“Good morning, security man.”

More consistency. The greeting had been their routine for the last twelve years.

The “boss lady” part, though, had only been added eight months ago, when the promotion she had worked her ass off for finally came through.

She passed the empty teller cubbies and hurried through a hallway on the other side that led to the business offices. Her own was the largest. She still got a little thrill walking into the nice-sized, windowed room, with its big cherry desk and sleek computer. She’d worked hard for this office and adored every part of it, from the potted majesty palm to the printer/scanner combo she didn’t have to share with any of her co-workers.

Ashlyn set her coffee next to her keyboard and shrugged off her navy linen blazer, hanging it on the back of her office chair. Then, she booted up her computer for what would be the last time.

In two hours and twelve minutes, she’d be dead.

At 9:56, the first gunshot echoed through the building. At first, Ashlyn thought a car had backfired. She shot an automatic glance out her window, toward El Camino Real, where traffic sat motionless at a red light. Before she could even scan the street, she heard Louise, their newest teller, scream. The high, shrill noise was cut off almost as soon as it had begun.

Ashlyn stood up swiftly, her chair rolling backward to thump against a filing cabinet. Her heart fluttered in her chest, and her palms went damp in an instant. Another shot rang out, and there was a grunt and a heavy thud just outside her office door. She tried to push it open with one shaking hand, but the door bumped against something heavy. She shoved harder, but the door wouldn’t open more than about a foot.

In the open space, a spreading pool of red marred the once freshly vacuumed carpet.

Ashlyn backed up, bile rising in the back of her throat. Black dots swirled in her vision, and for one horrible moment, she thought she might pass out.

“Come on, Ashlyn.” Her words sounded pathetic and weak to her own ears, especially in the confines of her office. She’d trained for this, she reminded herself. She swallowed hard. Security seminars. Online training classes provided by corporate, where she’d had to watch low budget, poorly acted videos about what to do in case of a robbery.

Needless to say, the tacky training videos hadn’t prepared her for the sight of Lenny on the hallway floor, staring up at the ceiling with a surprised expression in his lifeless eyes.

She looked out of the window for a half-second, longing to break out and lose herself in the blessed normalcy of the downtown Monday morning bustle. The urge to climb out and run as fast as she could, leave this situation behind, almost overwhelmed her.

But, she couldn’t. In a burst of movement that left her short, frosted blonde bob swinging, Ashlyn grabbed the phone on her desk and dialed 911 as a precaution. The three tellers had call buttons below their countertops. But as the emergency response operator buzzed in her ear, she heard one of them call her name. It was Greg, she realized, his voice high and frightened.

For a moment, she froze. An image of her husband, Robert, popped into her mind. The way he’d smiled at her over his granola and yogurt that morning, still as handsome and charming at fifty-eight as he had been at twenty-four. He’d sold his business for enough to keep them comfortable the rest of their lives and retired. He’d been bothering her to do the same—he could afford to take care of them both—and had started making noises about buying an RV and doing some traveling.

She set the phone gently on her desk as the tinny-sounding voice of the 911 operator repeated a question. She wished she’d done as Robert had asked, but she’d been so proud of her new job.

She struggled to hold back tears and squared her shoulders.

There were others in the office. Someone else would have called 911 by now. The police were already on their way. She had to believe that.

But she was the Branch Manager. She couldn’t wait for them.

“I’m coming out,” she yelled, trying to sound calm. “Greg, my door is stuck, if you could help me, please.”

“Go ahead,” she heard a woman’s muffled voice order. “And hurry up.”

Too soon, the door swung open a bit wider as Lenny’s body was rolled away from the other side. When she heard the sound of miserable retching, her own stomach tightened in a sympathy cramp. She stepped out through the widened gap, trying not to think about the way her shoes squelched in the wet carpeting.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Freitas,” Greg moaned, looking younger than his twenty-six years. His dark brown eyes were huge in his pale face. His thin arms trembled as he pulled Lenny’s limp body farther away from the door. “They told me to get the manager on duty.”

“It’s okay.” She gave him a weak smile, and jerked her head to the right, motioning for Greg to go farther in the back of the bank. He did, scuttling low and hunched over, like he was afraid he’d get a bullet between his shoulder blades.

She hoped he’d warn the other employees. Find some place to hide.

Stiffening her spine, Ashlyn stepped through the doorway, pasting on her most professional smile without consciously meaning to. “I’m Ashlyn Freitas. Can I help you?”

Before her, on the other side of the counter in the empty lobby, stood two Nixons.

A male and a female, both intruders were tall, around six feet. They were dressed in business casual clothes that wouldn’t seem out of place if she passed them on the street outside. But their faces were covered by leering Richard Nixon rubber masks. Her older brother had worn a similar one for trick or treating one year when they were kids, just to annoy their dad, a die-hard Republican.

Through the eyeholes in the masks, two pairs of eyes glittered at her. The man’s were bright blue, the expression in them unreadable. The woman’s were brown, lit with glee.

“I need you to help these young ladies fill a bag for us. Fast.” The man gestured with a large pistol toward a big, black canvas tote.

“No dye packs or I hunt down your fucking family,” the woman added with a snarl. “And don’t tell me you don’t have the cash available, because I checked your system before I got here. I know how much you’ve got, down to the penny.”

“Of course.”

Who was this woman that she could have gotten into their system? Or was she bluffing? Ashlyn’s mind whirled with the questions.

Ashlyn’s hands shook as she punched in the code to unlock the cash-dispensing machines at each teller station. Her hands moved in awkward, jerky motions. The whole situation felt surreal.

“Empty these,” she told Louise and Chantel. Both women looked near collapse. Chantel was wracked with silent sobs, tears rolling down her rounded cheeks. She was six months pregnant.

Ashlyn hushed her, keeping her voice gentle with effort, worried that the girl’s crying would irritate the thieves enough to shoot her. Chantel stifled a shudder.

Ashlyn looked up at the female Nixon. “The rest is in another room.”

Female Nixon nodded toward her partner. “Take him with you. And don’t try anything or I’ll have to kill a couple more of your employees, Ms. Branch Manager.”

“I’ll accompany you.” The man’s voice was smooth and polite, almost kind, with a hint of an Irish accent.

His eyes, though, were so icy, a bright, cold blue that held no emotion. She didn’t for a moment doubt he was any less dangerous than his cohort. He, too, carried a gun, and he grabbed the canvas tote. He gestured in a parody of politeness for her to lead the way.

She opened the locked room where their cash was kept and fumbled to drop handfuls of paper-banded twenties, fifties, and hundreds into the tote he held out.

“Hurry up, sweetheart,” the man murmured. “I’m afraid my associate is running out of patience.”

Task finished, they headed back to the lobby. Male Nixon loaded the money from the cash machines into the bag and then swung the heavy tote over his shoulder. “Ready to go, love?” he asked the Female Nixon.

Thank you, God. They’ll leave now.

Ashlyn Freitas almost sagged in relief. She didn’t care if they got away. She wanted them to get away. When the police showed up, who knew what would happen. They’d be taken hostage. Maybe killed.

Like poor Lenny.

Her legs felt near collapse, too rubbery to hold her upright anymore. She blocked Lenny’s fate from her mind with deliberate effort.

“We’ll leave,” the woman replied. “There’s just one more thing.”

She leveled the pistol at Ashlyn, who stood only a few feet away.

“Wait—” The man took a half-step forward, but he was too slow.

Almost at the same moment, there was a deafening roar, a bright flash. Instant darkness followed. Blindly, Ashlyn felt herself being propelled backward, slamming against something hard. A woman’s shriek echoed through her head before it faded into silence. It was strange…she didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t feel anything at all.

Ashlyn Freitas, Branch Manager of the American Bank and Trust in San Clemente, California, was dead before she hit the floor.

Chapter Two

Winter ignored the argument between Special Agents Sun Ming and Miguel Vasquez that raged outside of her cubicle. She didn’t look up from her computer screen.

As an FBI agent, she now had access to a boatload of resources for tracking down criminals. She planned to make use of every one of them to find one of the deadliest serial killers in modern history. Right now, she was knee-deep in murderers.

“Black,” a gruff voice barked out.

That voice, she registered. It reminded her of a muffler dragging on gravel.

She rolled her chair back fast, shuffling the files on her desk, and stood. “Sir?”

Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Violent Crimes Task Force Max Osbourne stalked toward her cubicle, irritation vibrating in his stocky, muscular frame. Even Sun and Miguel backed apart a step and broke off, mid-argument.

His stare nearly pinned Winter to the floor. “Your arm healed up all right?”

Behind Max, Noah Dalton raised his head over his own wall and shook his head in the negative, giving her a warning look. She read the look clearly. It said she was in trouble.

Winter and Noah had gone through Quantico together, and after the last case they’d worked, knew she could trust him with her life. She’d done it once. Noah disappeared again, and Winter opened her mouth to tell Max she had one more check-up before she was cleared for regular duty.

Unfortunately, Max didn’t wait for Winter to answer.

“Vasquez, back to your desk,” he ordered the man still inching away from Winter’s cubicle. “I don’t care if your doctor says you’re fighting fit. You still look like hell.”

It was true. Miguel’s face was an uncommon shade of pale except for two bright red patches of angry color high on his cheekbones. He was fresh off the disabled list and still not one-hundred-percent. He shot one last killing look at Sun, who just smiled back in triumph, baring even white teeth. Shoulders stiff, Miguel muttered something uncomplimentary in Spanish and headed back to his seat, still moving slowly after his appendectomy.

Sun’s grin widened at what she clearly saw as a win. She turned to walk back to her own desk, but Max stopped her.

“Black, you’re working with Ming now.”

The smug-to-horrified transformation of Sun’s face would have been comical if Winter hadn’t been just as appalled. Osbourne just chuckled, a raspy sound that sounded rusty from disuse.

“Come on now, girls. Be team players. Ming, you’re the case agent on this one. Bring Black up to speed.”

He headed back to his office, careless of the dynamic he’d just set into play.

Sun hated Winter’s guts, and the feeling was reciprocated.

When Winter had first been assigned to the Violent Crimes Unit, the other members of the team had taken good-natured advantage of her lack of experience. They had put her in charge of the virtual reams of paperwork their jobs generated.

She’d graduated Quantico in the same class as Noah, and they’d been hired in at the same time, but he at least had law enforcement experience. Between that and his easygoing attitude, he’d been an easy fit within the unit. Winter, not so much. He’d tried to let her work it out on her own. Eventually, though, he had let her in on the prank.

Winter had used Sun as an example to let everyone know she was done being their administrative assistant. Sun had been the biggest dog in the yard, or at least the one with the loudest bark, and Winter had taken her down in front of the rest of the team.

Judging by the expression in Sun’s dark eyes, Winter hadn’t been forgiven for that, and wouldn’t be any time soon.

Sun broke the tense silence first. Her words sounded as enthusiastic as if they’d been dragged out of her at knifepoint. “It’s too late to brief you now. Be here at seven, and I’ll catch you up then. Have a go-bag packed. We’ll be traveling.”

She didn’t wait for a reply.

“Awesome,” Winter muttered to her retreating form, sinking back into her seat. “Can’t wait.”

She pulled out the small sketchpad she’d tucked under a manila file folder when she’d heard Max Osbourne’s voice. The face of a killer stared up at her from the thick, white paper.

Rounded face, soft and unassuming, the man drawn there looked like someone’s benevolent grandpa. Or, maybe a mall Santa, with his close-trimmed beard and rosy cheeks. But his eyes were an inky shade of black. The evil in them roiled. It was visible, almost tangible, even with her less-than-expert art skills.

The Preacher.

He’d taken her family from her in the most brutal way possible when she was just thirteen years old and left her for dead. After over a decade, she was going to do what the rest of the FBI agents assigned to the case hadn’t been able to do. She was going to find the sick fucker and bring him down.

“Who’s that?” Noah’s voice was casual as he leaned over, but his green eyes were sharp when they met hers.

She glanced up at him. He knew her story. He also knew better than to pry.

“You heading out?” she asked instead, snapping the sketchbook closed and tucking it into her bag.

“Yep. Want to walk me to my car? Gets dark out there early this time of year.” He grinned, a dimple creasing one cheek. “You know I’m afraid of the dark.”

Winter rolled her eyes, for the most part immune to his easy charm by now. “Sure.” She gathered up her things and shrugged on her light wool peacoat. Noah tugged her braid free from her collar in a casual move she barely noticed.

“You know,” he started in as soon as the elevator doors began to slide shut. “You should give Sun a chance.”

“To do what? Slide a knife in my back? If you saw her face like I did today, you’d know she’s actively considering it.”

Noah shook his head and huffed out a breath. “You two are a lot alike, you know.”

Winter scowled at that. Jumping to the defensive was a no-brainer after such an idiotic statement, but she couldn’t let that slide. “I—”

He held up his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m just saying. Both of you are strong, brilliant, capable women. Neither of you are what I’d call flexible. But she’s good. With those porcupine quills of hers, Max would have fired her years ago if she wasn’t.”

The ding of the elevator arriving on the main floor cut off her pithy response.

“You’re too much of a nice guy, Dalton. Always trying to be the peacemaker.”

Noah shrugged his broad shoulders and stepped ahead of her to hold open the door. “When everybody gets along, darlin’,” he drawled, laying on the Texas twang like barbecue sauce, extra thick, “things get done a lot easier.”

The sky was dark, and lightning licked along the horizon. It had been cold in Richmond the past week, even for early December, but a warm front was trying to push in. Severe storms were in the forecast.

The weather matched her mood. Unsettled and pissed.

Thunder rumbled with distant menace, and a breeze whipped up as they walked toward their cars. “So, how would you recommend I deal with Sun, Dr. Phil?”

He smiled at her, his teeth gleaming in the darkness. “Just do whatever she says and bite your tongue.”

Winter snorted, digging in her purse for her keys. “Right. That’s so how I operate. What was all the yelling between her and Miguel about?”

“Apparently, he didn’t buy into her take on the case she just picked up. Told her she was crazy.”

Winter snorted. “He’s just out of the hospital for an exploded appendix, and he already has a death wish?”

“He’s got a point, though. Most banks don’t keep enough cash on hand to make it worthwhile, and armed robbery wouldn’t pass a good crook’s risk assessment.”

“Armed robbery? American Bank and Trust in San Clemente, California?”

Noah nodded and grimaced. “It’s been all over the news, for the cold-bloodedness of the killings alone. Dead security guard and bank manager. Sun has this idea that it’s something other than a run of the mill robbery and talked Osbourne into letting her take it.”

“Far be it from me to question anyone else’s gut feeling.” Winter’s tone was wry as she unlocked the door to her aging Civic. “But isn’t there a field office in San Diego?”

“The FBI just isn’t looking at bank robberies as hard as they used to, and San Diego is a busy office. They’ve got their hands full there. We handle robberies, of course, but since 9/11, they’re handled more by the local LEOs, unless they’re really bad. No one else is interested in or has time for this one right now, apparently. But Sun.”

“And now me. Yay.”

She slid into the front seat. Fat raindrops began to fall, splattering the windshield.

“Seriously, you’re doing okay, right? Ready to jump into another case?” Noah held the door in a loose grip, his face concerned.

“I’m fine.” It was true. The stitches in her arm had come out the week before, and she hadn’t even used any of the painkillers she’d been prescribed. “I’m just lucky you didn’t pull a move from Speed and decide to shoot the hostage.”

She tried to smile at Noah with some reassurance, but it felt forced.

Sure, her arm had healed up, but she had a new recurring nightmare to add to her already-gory repertoire. One that featured the tiny, malformed bones of buried children and the hot barrel of a gun pressed to the base of her skull.

“How’s Parrish doing?”

The question sounded like it had been wrenched out of Noah via torture. Winter couldn’t help but smile. “I thought you weren’t a fan of the SSA of the BAU.”

Noah glowered. “Actually, I’m not a fan of the damned Supervisory Special Agent of the damned Behavioral Analysis Unit.” His nose wrinkled as he said the words. “Can’t stand the guy. He’s an uptight prick, and I’m pretty sure he won’t quit trying to get you to cross over to the behavioral analysis dark side. But any agent that can take two bullets for another and live to brag about the scars at least deserves some respect.”

“I’ll text you later and let you know how he’s doing. I’m on my way over there now. Now, go away before you get struck by lightning.” The rain had picked up, and the strobe flashes that lit the parking lot were getting more intense.

Noah didn’t look happy that she was going to see Aiden, but he gave her a mocking salute and a grin before heading toward his truck at an easy jog.

Irritated by his attitude, Winter slammed her car door a little harder than was necessary. Noah Dalton and Aiden Parrish had a weird, petty rivalry going on, and both of them were annoying the hell out of her. When they’d all ended up working the same case together, Winter had to battle a near-constant urge to bash their heads together. If they weren’t sniping at each other, they were ganging up on her.

She started the car and hit the window defogger, the red glow of Noah’s new Ford’s taillights shimmered through the humid haze that covered the inside of the windshield. Her phone buzzed with a text: I’m not leaving until you do.

She texted back a middle finger emoji.

A sad little yellow face followed almost immediately.

 Sighing, she used the arm of her coat to wipe away most of the condensation on the inside of the glass. Noah’s misplaced sense of chivalry was too deeply ingrained to repair at this point. Trying to curb his protective streak was like beating her head against a very handsome brick wall. She put the car in drive and tried to ignore the big red truck exiting the parking lot at a polite distance behind her.

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Winter's Curse by Mary Stone

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