A Taste of... Winter's end

Chapter One

It was dark.

I didn’t like the dark. The aloneness that went along with its presence felt like a living thing. At least the moon was trying to look in on me, so I didn’t feel so by myself. That was okay because I sometimes laid in my bed and watched the moon right back, so that was fair.

What time was it? Blinking hard, I leaned toward my nightstand, turning my clock so I could see—

Thud.

A sound ruptured the silence, making me jump. It was like something had fallen, creating a hollow echoing sound that didn’t belong in my house. Was that what had woken me to begin with? I was usually a very good sleeper. Mommy said so. But I was awake now. Very awake. I didn’t like it. Maybe I was such a good sleeper because being asleep made me not think about the dark.

I wish I wasn’t thinking of it now. It was watching me.

Heart making my ears feel full, I sat up, pulling my blanket to my chin, peering into the dark shadows of my room.

The closet was closed, which was exactly the way I liked it. It scared me when the door was cracked open, giving evil enough room to peek through. I could feel it sometimes watching me when my closet was like that. Feel it waiting. Hoping. Wanting me to get too close. Ready to attack. Gobble me up.

Was it the monster who’d made that noise? Was it placing its hand on the knob right now, ready to open the door and leap?

Scraaape.

Holding my blanket tighter, I almost screamed, but managed to keep the sound behind my teeth. If I’d screamed, the monster would know I was awake. And it would make my big sister laugh at me in the morning. I didn’t like to be laughed at, which was why I’d stopped using a nightlight in my bedroom. I wished I had my nightlight now.

Stupid sister.

The scraping sound came again, making it hard to breathe for a while. It came one more time, and this time, instead of freaking out, I tried my best to recognize the sound. Was the monster carrying an ax, dragging it on the floor? Heading my way? Or was it already under my bed, waiting for my feet to hit the floor so it could chop off my toes and catch me before I could run?

“Stop being a baby,” I whispered to myself as I scanned the entire room, too afraid to turn the light on. I hated being called a baby, especially by my sister. I was six years old, practically a grown-up, for cripes’ sake.

Maybe whatever I’d heard had slammed my closet door shut, and whatever it was could be in there now. Or worse, maybe it was now in my room. Trying to look everywhere at once, I peered into the shadows, but nothing moved. Nothing was crawling over the floor or across my ceiling. Being super careful, I peeked over the side of my bed, expecting something to jump up at any second.

Which was worse? Confronting the monster or waiting for it to confront you?

I didn’t know.

Frozen with indecision, I thought through my options. If the monster wasn’t in my closet or on the floor or ceiling, it could only mean one thing. It was under my bed.

I needed Daddy. Monsters were afraid of Daddies. I pulled the covers up to my chin and locked them in my fist. Monsters weren’t allowed to dig under blankets, Daddy said so. If I stayed under the blankets, they couldn’t get to me. I couldn’t cover my face, though, because that made it hard to breathe. Besides, I was too scared. I had to see if one of them rose from the floor and reached for me.

None did.

Just when I thought it was safe again, I heard another thud, and my heart started galloping in my chest again. But this time, I knew something I hadn’t known before. The noise wasn’t inside my room. It had come from down the hall. From Mommy and Daddy’s room.

As I listened with all my ears, I realized that the sound was familiar. It was the same sound I made when I tried to use the bed as a trampoline. Mommy didn’t like that. Daddy said I had to work on my…dismount, whatever that meant. Instead of landing on my feet, I always landed on my butt on the wood floor in my room, and this new middle of the night sound was kinda like that.

Which was funny because I didn’t hear Mommy or Daddy jumping on their bed. The bed squeaked when I did that, and the headboard hit the wall. I wondered if I’d slept through that part and only woke up when they fell. I grinned, thinking how funny it would be if one of them needed to work on their dismount too. I wanted to go and see and laugh with them. I wanted to see them on their butts, just like me.

But getting up meant turning on the light. That was scary. Monsters didn’t like Daddies and blankets and light especially. That meant they’d keep you from turning on a light if they thought you were going to.

I thought about this a long time and finally pulled my arm free of the covers because I was brave—Mommy said so—and that was what brave boys did. I reached up as hard and as long as I could, and I still nearly missed the dangling chain, making it make a clinking sound against the metal pole thingy that held the light.

When it was finally in my hand, I pulled it really hard, hard enough to send the lamp dancing across my nightstand. The race car at the bottom of the light glowed, and the light shone off its little windshield in a hundred different places that were dazzling.

At least the light was on. The monsters had to leave me alone now. I saw Captain America watching from a poster I put up a couple of days ago. I knew that he was only paper, but I kept thinking that if monsters ever did show up, Cap would sound an alarm. ‘Sides, now that I was up, I was thirsty, and a glass of water would be just about right.

I grabbed my giraffe. Mommy and Daddy got him for me when I was little, and his neck didn’t stay upright too much anymore, but that just meant he leaned into me harder. He’s Raff. He reached things for me when I couldn’t because I didn’t tall well. I liked Raff even if Winter thought it was a stupid name.

My sister called a lot of things stupid. She was thirteen and nearly a grown-up. She called me “Stupid” too. I thought maybe she didn’t do well with names and forgot mine was Justin because she called me Stupid a lot.

My footie pajamas made little whisper sounds as I headed to the door. It was kind of hard for me to turn the knob because my hands were all sweaty. I wished that Raff was real and that he could do the doorknob for me. He was good at knocking things off shelves and stuff, but he couldn’t quite do twisty round parts, and doorknobs were all twisty round parts that should be banned by every house in America.

Peeking into the hallway, I could tell that my parents’ door was open. When their door was closed, that meant I had to knock, and even when I did, Daddy got grumpy. But if the door was open, then it was okay to walk in and wake them up. They were probably already awake if they were making thud noises.

Still, I was a little worried they wouldn’t like me seeing them “have fun” because Daddy told me that—in exactly those words—when I walked in one night when they forgot to close the door and were doing something not sleeping.

I told him that I liked to “have fun” too, and he told me that I needed to talk to Mommy about the “birds and the bees,” which was confusing because, while birds were fun to watch, bees only wanted to sting with their butts. I didn’t want to sting anyone with my butt, and I absolutely didn’t want them stinging me.

Grown-ups were so confusing.

“Should we go in?” I asked Raff in my very quietest whisper.

Raff nodded. He nodded at a lot of things. I liked that about Raff because, sometimes, I needed someone around to tell me “yes” because everyone else was so good at saying “no.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I held Raff tight, my fist gripping his long neck as I walked into the room. After all, his plastic eyes were watching me like the moon was watching me, so it wasn’t like I was alone. Mommy and Daddy couldn’t say no to all of us, could they?

Only they didn’t say anything at all.

I stopped and stared because Daddy was right there, kind of hanging off the bed, his head back, and looking at me upside down. One arm was kinda up over his head, the other was somewhere in the blankets. It was a funny way to lay. I didn’t like the way Daddy was looking at me. He was looking at me the way Raff looked at me. Daddy’s eyes didn’t blink, and they looked kind of shiny and plastic and not real at all.

There was a kind of third eye on his forehead now, which I knew hadn’t been there before. I wondered where he got it, and why he’d put it there. If I had a third eye, I’d put it on the back of my head so I could see things that came up from behind me. Because monsters liked to come up from behind little kids, so they could gobble them up before they could scream.

Scream…

Scream…

I must’ve made a noise because the moon came out to look and see what was going on. Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom window got brighter, and I started to see the red.

It was everywhere. I thought that it must be ketchup. If it was, Daddy must have broken a whole bottle ‘cause the ketchup was covering his face and rolling in and out of his open mouth. I wanted to ask why Mommy and Daddy had ketchup in bed because I wasn’t allowed to eat in my room. But Daddy wasn’t swallowing, and I didn’t think he’d answer if I asked.

I hoped it was ketchup. I prayed it was ketchup because it was starting to look like it did when I fell on the rocks and cut my arm. When that happened last summer, the blood ran and streaked down the skin from wrist to elbow.

Mommy bandaged my arm, and Daddy fixed the bicycle, but there wasn’t nearly so much blood then as Daddy had now. He was covered in it. I thought it must hurt, but Daddy’s eyes still didn’t blink, and he was staring at me like he didn’t want me to be there.

Mommy bandaged owies. That’s what she did. She wrapped them and put that stuff on the cuts and scrapes that stung like crazy, but you had to have it. I liked it better when she put the bandage on and kissed my forehead and smiled, and the world was all right again. Mommy could bandage this; she could put some of the stinging stuff on Daddy and make him better and get me and Raff a glass of water.

I trotted to the other side of the bed. I saw Mommy’s feet first, only they didn’t stand up. Her feet looked funny all slack like that, and I thought she must be very tired to sleep in such a twisty way. I thought if I touched them, she’d wake up and giggle because Mommy was ticklish. But I was scared to, and I didn’t know what to do.

Raff said that he’d touch them, he just needed a boost. I lifted him, and Raff touched his face against her feet, but nothing happened. I tapped Raff’s nose against her, but she didn’t move her feet. I didn’t want to look at her face for some reason. I couldn’t.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to see, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go back to my room and hide and crawl under the blankets and stay there until the moon and Daddy stopped looking at me with unblinking eyes. I wanted the sun to come up and Mommy to make pancakes and for Daddy to be late for work and rushing around complaining like he always did.

I wanted to go away until life was normal again.

But even as my heart was telling me to run, my feet wanted to know. They moved closer, around the corner of the bed. I didn’t ask them to, they just did. The moon came too, and I could see that Mommy was covered in red. The sheets, the pillows, the blankets. Everything was red.

I guessed the blankets didn’t save her. Daddy didn’t save her. Maybe some monsters weren’t afraid of Daddies or blankets, after all. I wondered if they were afraid of the light.

I decided I didn’t want to know those kinds of monsters.

Mommy was looking at the ceiling. She was staring at it, but it looked wrong when she did, the way it looked wrong when Daddy stared at me. I was still close to her feet. If I tickled her, maybe I could make her wake up. I reached for her foot like I’d reached for the lamp, but when I touched her foot, it was cold, and it didn’t move under my fingers.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t alive. It wasn’t her.

It couldn’t be.

I wanted Daddy, but he was still upside down. For a minute, I wondered if he was laying like that so he could slide off and check for monsters under the bed. Or maybe he already checked…and one of them got him.

My whole body shivered, and my heart began punching at my ribs.

I shook Mommy harder until her whole body moved. Her head turned, and there was something wrong with her neck because it twisted funny, and suddenly, there was more blood. It was on my hands and on my pajamas.

This wasn’t my Mommy and Daddy. I was really scared now, and I wanted them to wake up now.

I turned and screamed for my sister. She could set this right because Winter always fixed things, like when she fixed the lampshade I hit it with my ball. She could wake Mommy and Daddy, and if she wanted to call me Stupid, I didn’t care. She could call me names and beat me up and make fun of me all she wanted if she’d just wake them. Then I could get a glass of water and a kiss on the head, and they could tuck me in.

Only, I couldn’t scream. My mouth was open, but nothing came out, even though a part of my chest was breaking, and the pounding of my heart crashed through my ears, and I was deaf with the throb-throb-throb of it. I couldn’t even yell for help.

I made my feet move. I forced them to turn me around, to carry me out of there, to get away from plastic eyes and funny Mommy and Daddy shaped things. I was stuck, though, my feet sticking to the floor. I realize that it was because the red stuff was on them, the rug was full of it. My feet of my pajamas were red, and they left red footprints everywhere I stepped until I was in the hallway. I didn’t remember getting there.

I left footprints from my Mommy’s room to the hallway, and she was going to be so mad when she woke up, woke up, woke up, wake up. Suddenly, my voice came back in a shriek as loud as any firetruck.

“WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”

I couldn’t think of my sister’s name. I couldn’t think at all. I just needed everyone to wake up, everyone needed to wake up, everyone needed to wake up, and I screamed as loud and as long as I could.

But no one came.

Backing down the hallway, I didn’t stop until my back hit my sister’s door. I needed to go inside and wake her up. But…what if she had a third eye too?

Whimpering, I just stood outside her door, my hand on the knob. Raff told me to turn it, but then I heard a soft click coming from downstairs. It sounded like the front door.

Was the monster leaving, or was it opening the door for his friends?

I shuddered so hard my hand fell from the doorknob, and I huddled against my sister’s door as footsteps sounded on the stairs. I waited for the squeak from the fifth step from the top, but it didn’t come. The monster knew about that squeak.

My pajama bottoms grew warm and wet when a dark figure appeared at the top of the steps. It had long black hair and it was walking up on its toes, very sneaky. Very quiet.

The dark figure stopped at Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom door, and from the light coming from the door, I realized it wasn’t a monster. It was Winter. My sister.

Nearly hysterical with relief, I tried to say her name, but the words were caught in my throat because it was tight and hard to breathe.

As she stared into our parents’ room, she made a sound that kind of sounded like a scream, and her hand came up to cover her mouth as she stumbled backward.

She’d seen the ketchup too, I could tell. And she would clean it up and we’d all laugh in the morning as we ate our pancakes.

For a moment, I thought everything might be all right, but that was before more weird things happened. A shadow behind my big sister kind of pulled away from the rest of the darkness. The shadow shifted and changed, then grew bigger and bigger. After my heart pounded at least three more times, the shadow became a man. A full-grown man.

Yay, it’s a grown-up. That was my first thought, at least. Maybe he could wake my parents. After all, he was an adult, and that was what adults did. They helped.

But instead of helping, he raised something he held in his hand. It was a long piece of wood, like a bat, but thinner. I knew that I should scream or say something, anything at all, but before I could even open my mouth, my sister turned and looked at the man. She didn’t have time to scream either before the shadow man slammed the thing down on her head, and she fell. And just like that, she was staring at the wall like Daddy had been staring.

There was blood on her head now too.

My fingers were numb, and my brain was numb. Raff slipped from my fingers onto the floor, and he got blood on him too. He stared at me from the floor as if to say “get out get out get out,” but the man stared at me too as he stepped over my sister, and threw the stick away into my parents’ bedroom. His other hand held something that shone in the dim moonlight. It was a knife, but the knife was bleeding too.

He went down to one knee and smiled at me.

“Your Mommy and Daddy kept you from meeting me,” he said. His voice was like a deep rumble, like Mr. Washington at the store. Mommy said that Mr. Washington talked like that because he smoked too much. I wondered if this man smoked too much. I could kinda smell the smoke on him, but everything around me smelled stronger, sweet, and funny—like metal I could taste with my nose.

“We’re family,” he said to me. “You shouldn’t oughta be kept from your family.” He looked toward my parents’ room for a moment before turning all his focus back on me. He scooped me up into his arms. I wanted to reach for Raff, but my whole body was frozen as he stepped over my sister and walked calmly down the stairs and out of the door, me in my wet SpongeBob pajamas, and headed for a pickup truck parked in the street.

He set me on the passenger side and told me to wait. I thought, I should run, I should hide, I should get far, far away. He was a stranger, and I was not supposed to ride with strangers, but I couldn’t move, and the words got stuck again.

He got in and fired up the truck. “You’re a good boy,” he said, his voice still a low grumble. “You obeyed me just right, and all you gotta do is keep on obeyin’ me. ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.’ That’s from the sixth chapter of Ephesians. Do you know your Bible, boy?”

Mutely, I shook my head. My thumb was inching closer to my mouth.

“Didn’t think so. That’ll be a changin’, boy. Gonna teach you right.” The truck started moving, and he looked at me sideways. “I was at your house just to meet you, and I’m going to take care of you from now on. Not right keepin’ you from your family. Not right at all.”

The truck rattled and coughed and belched smoke. I could see it in the mirror on the side of the truck, just like I could see my house growing smaller and smaller. We went through the neighborhood, past where I was allowed to ride my bike. I looked in the mirror at my house behind me and missed Mommy and Daddy and Winter and Raff-Raff. He drove down roads I didn’t recognize until my home wasn’t there behind us anymore.

“How about we call you…Jaime?” the man said suddenly. “My name is Kilroy. Some folks just call me Preacher.”

I put my thumb in my mouth and nodded.

What else could I do?

* * *

I shook my head. God, what a waste of time. Memories usually were. I’d sat down to talk, and instead, I got lost, caught in a whole lot of nonsense from a long time ago. More than thirteen years ago. Sometimes, I forgot that all that mattered was the here and now.

Justin was dead. Why couldn’t I leave him buried?

I realized that the camera was still recording and had captured me sitting and daydreaming, reliving little boy nightmares. I cursed under my breath and called myself twelve kinds of fool as I took the memory card out of the camera and inserted a fresh one, a new one, one that had never witnessed the image of me lost in some pathetically childish dream. The first one would have to be destroyed.

When I sat back, I took a deep calming breath as I assessed my image on the little screen. It was perfect, just the way I’d planned it for so long.

With the simple tap of a button, REC appeared on the bottom left corner of the monitor. I gazed into the camera, imagining how she’d feel when she was gazing back.

I had something to say and someone very important to tell it to.

Time to begin.


Chapter Two

Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Violent Crimes office, Max Osbourne, drew a heavy breath and gave Winter Black one of his more impressive looks. She’d seen the new hires flinch under one of those looks. Given that their department worked on catching the country’s most violent criminals, that was saying something.

Winter didn’t so much as bat an eyelash, willing him to see this as a good a sign as any that she was ready to take on bigger cases. He’d recently started giving her grunt work, and she knew it was because of her brother’s case. It was time for him to believe that she could handle anything, including taking down her sibling.

“I want to know everything. I won’t involve myself in Justin’s case.” She mentally crossed her fingers as she said it. “I just want to help with the Timothy and Mariah Young murder case.”

She swallowed, thinking of Mariah, the sweet little girl who’d witnessed the aftermath of her mother and sister’s brutal murder. Winter still felt like a failure for not keeping the father and daughter safe. They should have tried harder, done more. Anything more.

It had been like a knife in her gut when she’d learned Tim and Mariah had also been slaughtered, Preacher style. They were just the last of a long list of innocents who had survived the Danville Mall murders…only to be savagely killed by someone intent on finishing what Tyler Haldane and Kent Strickland started that terrible night.

Kelsey and Adrian Esperson

Sandy and Oliver Ulbrich

Willa Brown

Dana Young and her twelve-year-old daughter Sadie

And now Timothy and ten-year-old Mariah. An entire family wiped out so cruelly.

By Winter’s baby brother?

It appeared that way.

Max’s stare was growing even harder as her mind wandered into the past. Did he growl a little under his breath? This was her boss, and by now, she was used to Max’s bluster, and knew how to control the situation. At least she hoped she did.

“You can help as needed, but I’m not going to assign you directly to the case. Understood?” He pulled an open file closer across his desk. It was a newly assembled file, and the side tab held a very familiar name. Justin Black AKA Jaime Peterson.

She swallowed hard on seeing the names in print like that, side by side, as though they belonged together. She wasn’t entirely sure how someone missing for so long, who’d gone through so much as Justin had to have survived, could all be encapsulated into a simple manilla folder. Her eyes longed to drink in the photo of her dark-haired brother that gazed out from its place on top of the paperwork.

Max cleared his throat, pulling her attention back to him. “I shouldn’t be talking to you about any of this, you understand me? This case…it’s been going south for a while now. No sooner do we run down one name, one killer, than another crops up. The Preacher is dead. Now, we only need the third person from the manifesto.”

The manifesto to which he was referring was an online letter that proclaimed the works that Kent Strickland and Tyler Haldane had written before shooting up a mall and killing a number of innocent victims. As it turned out, there was a third accomplice in the shooting, one who’d gone on a killing spree himself.

Was that Justin?

Winter still had a hard time believing it could be her baby brother. But then again, the last time she’d seen her brother, he’d been wearing SpongeBob pajamas and holding his favorite stuffed animal, Raff.

“When the connection to your missing brother came up,” Max went on, “well, I hoped they would be wrong. But from what Kent Strickland’s father, George, told Miguel and Noah, he gave a positive ID on Jaime Peterson. Apparently, he and Kent were good friends. They formed a…” Max checked his notes again before continuing. “They formed a club of sorts, using code names and secret handshakes, the lot.”

Winter swallowed, lifting a hand halfway to her mouth, compensating for the gesture by brushing a single strand of glossy black hair back behind her ear as she nodded. She willed her blue eyes to stay carefully calm and serene. “Right. Do you know more on why they used the code names?” She already knew all this, and she didn’t understand why Max was bringing it up again, so she played along.

“Yes, they’d apparently planned on being a military unit one day. They had code names for each other, the way special ops in the movies have. As you know, your brother was ‘White Ghost.’”

Somehow, that was fitting. Jaime/Justin was a ghost of sorts, after all. One she’d been searching for over a dozen years.

“This is all according to Strickland, right?” Winter looked up, feeling a glimmer of hope that faded almost as soon as it started. Strickland might not be the most reliable witness, but there was no reason for him to lie, not now.

“He was most cooperative.” Max gazed back at her from under heavy eyebrows. “Winter, you know that you’re not on this case. You’re too close.”

Every fiber of her soul wanted to scream and yell and tear the office apart. Of course, she needed to be in on this, it was her brother, the child she couldn’t protect, the last of her family.

A more rational part of her realized that was the exact reason she shouldn’t be on the case. Her objectivity wasn’t there. If an agent allowed her emotions to rule her case, she jeopardized not only herself, but also her partner and everyone who worked the case. Of course, knowing that didn’t help the frantic energy that was building inside every cell of her body.

“I’m a professional.” Her voice was calm, and the words came in measured tones. “I’m aware of the risks. I don’t expect to be assigned to this. I just…” She stared at the desk and the folder that held all the information on her lost brother. “I just want to be kept informed. Please.” She lifted her gaze, meeting his eyes squarely. Max returned her look with one of his own, a considering look.

I’m not being unreasonable. Under the circumstances, I think I’m being perfectly rational.

What Max had to consider was beyond her.

“I’ll keep you in the loop.”

Winter blinked. He’d acquiesced. Okay, there might have been a certain amount of reluctance, but he was willing to give her this much, at least. Winter could see it in his posture, in his expression that he was trying. Well, she would if a stoic iron-forged face like Max’s could be considered to have expressions. He might have made a professional poker player with as much as he gave away.

Calm down. You know what he’s not saying here. Don’t run a victory lap just yet.

Winter understood what Max didn’t say: he would give her little bits and pieces that he felt were safe for her to hear, and only when he felt it was safe to tell her.

Which, in the end, was still better than nothing. At least she hoped so.

The scream began again under her calm.

No. It wasn’t better. Deep down, she knew it wasn’t.

She wanted more. She wanted every scrap of information, of evidence. She wanted her brother back, dammit. She’d only been thirteen when he’d been lost to her. Now, after a lifetime of searching, she was so close. So close she could taste it. How in the hell was she supposed to stand back and let someone else bring him in?

She should be the one to see this through. Not some stranger who’d never met him, who didn’t know him the way she did. They only saw the stone-cold killer, not the scared little boy who couldn’t go anywhere without his stuffed giraffe.

“It’s probably stupid to ask this, but I have to. How are you holding up under this? If you need some time off…” Max closed the file, the picture of Jaime Peterson—Justin Black, the protégé of Douglas Kilroy…Winter’s long-lost brother and suspected killer—now covered up. Just like that, the meeting was over. This was all she was going to get.

Why was Max asking personal questions? She met his gaze, suddenly unsure. This was Max. He’d always been approachable as far as bosses where concerned, but to Max, everything was all about the job, and to suddenly pry into the emotional state of one of his people felt wrong. Weird. Like he was looking for something.

Like he was expecting her to crack under the pressure.

Breathe. Just breathe. It’ll be all right.

Winter smiled and looked away. Remember, it’s still all about the job. Max wanted to know if his agent was able to work. He was a man checking a tool, making sure that it could work for him before using it. Making sure the tool didn’t snap during a crucial phase of the job. This wasn’t about her. This was about what she was able to do, about how she was able to work. Or not.

That bitter, visceral assessment might have been unfair, but so was this entire situation. She blew out a short breath in frustration.

He has a job to do, and for that matter, so do I.

“I’m all right.” Winter looked him in the eye again. Maybe there was a little concern for her in there, more than just the job, but it was the boss she answered, not the man. “In fact, it would be easier on me if I concentrate on what I am able to do. Maybe I can’t be involved directly in Justin’s case, but I can still do other, more important duties. That’s a lot better than sitting around obsessing on what I can’t do, don’t you think?”

“All right.” Max leaned back in his chair, and Winter stood, realizing that the interview was over. Time to prove everything she’d just said and try not to think about how Justin had become Jaime. Or that Kilroy had taught him well. Most of all, she needed to remember there was nothing she could do about any of it.

Max was right, she was too close. The burn in her guts told her that.

Let the others handle it.

Which was all great, in theory. She was willing to be professional, but the emotions still churned in her guts, and the adrenaline that came from holding down the emotions surged through her blood. She stepped outside of Max’s office and looked toward her desk and the mounds of papers waiting to be shuffled, the phone that never stopped ringing, and all the responsibilities of a job she loved. And that didn’t even begin to address the multitudes of unread messages sitting in her inbox right now.

Instead, she turned in the other direction and headed for the exit, making a beeline to the gym. There was a lot of energy to burn off and building up a sweat always seemed to clear her head and help her think.

Today of all days, the aerobics and treadmills had no appeal. Today was a good day for the heavy bag. Thankfully, no one was using it, meaning she could dive in fairly fast while her adrenaline was still up.

She loved the feeling as the bag gave under her fists. She pounded on the canvas cover and pummeled Douglas Kilroy and Justin Black and a thirteen-year-old Winter who couldn’t protect her little brother. She beat on her parents for getting killed. She beat on Max, on her boyfriend, Noah, on Strickland and Haldane. Then Kilroy again, the so-called “Preacher,” the cause of all of this.

She hit him for what he did, for who he was, for dying with her brother’s location on his lips and taking that to his grave. She hit him for what he did to Justin, for what he did to her, and most especially to her parents.

No matter how hard and how fast Winter hit the bag, it seemed there was no upper limit to the damage she wanted to inflict on Douglas Kilroy. She threw herself into every punch; the grunts and guttural sounds she made on every impact were a curse on his memory.

She punched for the ones murdered at the Danville Mall and those killed simply because they’d escaped. The Espersons and the Ulbrichs. Willa and the entire Young family.

Especially, Mariah.

By the time she ran out of people to pummel, her arms felt sodden, and her shoulders sang with the impacts to the bag. She straightened, stretching her back to find out that she’d been the focus of some scrutiny from those around her. She glanced around, suddenly uneasy.

This wasn’t the usual ogling that men tried to hide when a woman exercised. These looks were more of surprise and concern. She looked around the room in surprise and no small amount of anger until she swore that, if she saw one more worried frown, she wouldn’t use the bag anymore, but transfer the rage within to the next person who asked or even looked like they wanted to ask if she was all right. A person had a right to workout the way they chose.

Then it came back to her that the grunts and explosions of sounds coming from her mouth occasionally had had words buried in them, and she blushed, considering some of the more choice phrases she’d used.

She swiped at her face with the back of her hand, and that’s when she nosed the blood. Her nose was bleeding, more than a little. Dammit. She reached for the tissue she kept on her person at all times to staunch the flow, but her hands were clumsy with the boxing gloves.

No wonder the other men and women were watching her carefully, as if she were an explosion waiting to happen.

Gritting her teeth, she ignored them, and they eventually went back to lifting round leaden weights and running on conveyor belts. Winter stood long enough to catch her breath, and a part of her marveled that the bag had withstood as much punishment as it had with no sign of damage.

That seemed unfair, considering how her fists and forearms still vibrated from her efforts. She remembered a scene in a movie where the hero punched holes in the heavy, thick canvas. Or maybe the one where the bag went flying off the chain. She decided the workout would definitely have been more satisfying if the bag had, at the very least, ruptured.

In between breaths, a new thought occurred to her, one at odds with the severe professionalism she’d worked so long and hard to achieve.

I don’t need to be assigned to the case.

For a moment, she couldn’t breathe at all. She walked calmly to where she’d stashed her water bottle as she turned this over in her mind. I still have access to files under my own name. I can look into the evidence and work this on my own. Just so long as I keep my own little personal investigation hidden.

She pulled the cord to the right glove with her teeth and shook her hand till the glove fell. She freed her left hand in a similar way and bundled the gloves together before taking a long drink. She could feel the water all the way down, crisp and cool.

I can do it. No one needs to know.

Excited now, Winter grabbed her towel, dabbed at her nose, and headed for the showers. A hot shower, a quick bite of toast, and the afternoon should go reasonably well. If nothing else, she could hold on to the cool and collected agent persona, and that would make it easier to prowl undetected in areas she wasn’t supposed to be in.

She paused in the doorway and turned in silent farewell to the bag and the many victims of her rage it represented. For a wild giddy moment, she wondered if maybe it would be best to leave all that there, to allow the ghosts to wander the gym unmolested. Wasn’t that what a professional would do?

No, it was what they would have her do.

I can’t. I can’t let this go any more than I can stop breathing. I’m not ready to forget. I can’t do that to you, Justin. You still need me.

By the time she got into the shower, the hot water only seemed to strengthen her resolve. The energy was burned off, and she felt more able to face the day, but she wasn’t about to sit back and idly let the case go forward without her.

She needed to get in this. For that scared little boy she remembered outside of her parents’ door. For her. Justin deserved better, and so did she.

And she couldn’t do anything if she was bogged down in shit work for the Bureau.

Once she was toweled off, Winter braided her hair neatly and dressed in the fresh clothes she kept in her locker. Within ten minutes, she was heading back to her desk.

She stopped when Max called her name. “Come to my office.” When she didn’t move, he added, “Now.”

Winter swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”

Dread crawled over her skin like a spider as he shut his door behind her.

“Winter, we have a problem.”

It seemed her little outburst in the gym had already made its way to his ears. And just like that, Max put her on a leave of absence.

“For how long?”

 His gaze was softer this time. “Until I tell you to come back.”


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Winter's End by Mary Stone

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