A Taste of… Winter’s Ghost
Tyler Haldane grimaced as the sheriff’s deputy fastened the final strap of his Kevlar vest. As he tried to take in a deep breath, his ribs were constricted by the tight binds. Between the vest and the silver shackles that bound his wrists to his ankles, he was surprised he could even move.
Well, he’d been surprised at first. Now, almost six months after he and his friend Kent Strickland were captured, the deputy’s gruff motions were part of a routine.
Any time Tyler was transported from his jail cell to a meeting at the psychiatric hospital or the courthouse, the level of security that accompanied him must have rivaled that of a sitting United States president. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Tyler still couldn’t believe six months had passed since he and Kent donned their own bulletproof vests, combat boots, and camouflage fatigues. Six long assed months since they’d carried out the plan they’d hatched the summer before.
Toward the end of their junior year in college, Tyler had gone with Kent to visit his father’s house in Bowling Green. In the week of spring break, they had been introduced to the kid Kent’s father paid to mow the lawn.
Jaime was a few years younger than Kent and Tyler, but as luck would have it, his school’s spring break overlapped with theirs. Their new friend had an intriguing set of ideals, almost all of which aligned with Tyler and his best friend.
Tyler’s mother had taken some convincing, but she eventually gave him her blessing to spend the summer with Kent out at his father’s acreage. George Strickland had possessed an impressive collection of firearms, and he and Kent went target shooting almost every day.
Once the sun went down, they would gather around a firepit as they discussed their visions for the future of American society. Each time they were joined by Jaime, the high schooler encouraged and reinforced Kent and Tyler’s ideations.
They all wanted the same thing—a return to the old ways. A return to the time when a family was comprised of a man, a woman, and their children. When hardworking men could provide for their families, and when they could be men without having to worry about the whims of women who overstepped their bounds.
The conversations evolved to plans, the plans evolved to actions, and before the beginning of the school year, Kent and Tyler had crafted a detailed outline of their plans for the Riverside Mall in Danville, Virginia.
Though the obvious choice for a target would have been the nearby metropolis of Richmond, the city was also home to an office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In an effort to prolong the response time of well-equipped tactical teams, Tyler and Kent selected a location several hours away from their summertime home in Bowling Green.
Neither Tyler nor Kent expected to make it out of the Riverside Mall with their freedom, but they had been there to send a message, not get away with a crime. The SS armbands had been a last-minute addition, and even though Kent and Tyler didn’t necessarily subscribe to the neo-Nazi ideals, they knew the red and black Swastika would draw media attention.
And at the end of the day, that was what they wanted: attention.
The shitty thing was, they would’ve gotten all the attention they could have ever dreamed of, if it hadn’t been for the son of a bitch, The Preacher. It still galled Tyler that their spotlight had been dimmed by an old man.
But how could they have known that the takedown of a serial killer would hog as many headlines as a mass shooting? That fool’s victims had been dead long ago…and they all probably deserved it.
Fucking society was messed up.
Although it hadn’t gone exactly as they’d planned it, Tyler Haldane and Kent Strickland were still household names across the South, and the event at the Riverside Mall had become the topic of international dialogue. From Virginia to Maine and all the way over to the European Union, everyone was talking about the fifteen deaths in an unassuming Virginia mall.
Perfect or not, Tyler and Kent had made history.
Thirteen people had been killed at the mall, and two more succumbed to their injuries within the next twenty-four hours. The number was lower than he and Kent had envisioned, and before they could make it higher, Kent had been shot in the head. When Tyler saw his friend go down, he thought for sure he was dead.
Tyler had immediately turned his sights to the FBI agent who fired the shot, but he’d only been able to hit her in the shoulder before the air was forced from his lungs as he was tackled to the floor.
When he awoke the next day, he was met with the drab gray concrete of a prison cell. Later that afternoon, the defense attorney in charge of his case had told him that Kent had survived an extensive operation to minimize damage to his brain.
He was in a medically induced coma, and the doctors put his odds of survival at fifty-fifty. But a couple weeks later, he’d been roused from the deep state of unconsciousness. According to the most recent medical estimates, Kent was expected to make a full recovery.
God’s sign of approval, if Tyler’d ever seen one.
A cacophonous buzz jerked Tyler’s attention back to the present. An armed deputy to either side, their procession started down the hall. The overhead fluorescent lights seemed to sap the vividness from any color they touched. Even Tyler’s bright orange shirt and pants looked muted under the harsh glow.
His shackles clattered as they advanced through the first set of doors and to the second. The psychiatric facility was almost as secure as a prison, but no matter the level of security, Tyler knew there would be reporters and onlookers crowded around a chain-link fence in hopes he would respond to one of their inquiries.
And maybe, one of these trips, he would, but not today. He hadn’t prepared a statement, and he wanted to wait until he knew the weight of his words were worthy of the harsh reprimand he would receive from the deputies at his sides.
The din of muffled voices grew clearer as the double doors parted to reveal the late-afternoon sunlight. As expected, a hoard of onlookers milled about the perimeter, their cameras and wide-eyed stares fixed on Tyler.
His smirk came unbidden, and despite the discomfort of the metal that bit into his wrists, he felt at ease. Without a doubt, their message was being circulated throughout the country, through the internet, even inadvertently through nationally syndicated news networks.
A change was on the horizon. He could feel it.
Regardless of whether he had to watch the shift from behind bars, he could take pride in his role, could vicariously reap the fruits of his labor. No matter the sentence handed down at his trial, he was only at the beginning of his life. There was much to see, many changes to witness, ideals to spread.
As he inhaled a deep breath of fresh air, he thought he had an entire lifetime ahead of him, but then…pop.
Before he could even place the sound, his world went black forever.
Glancing around the dusty workspace, Noah Dalton raised a hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn. At quarter ‘til eleven, a crime scene was among the last places he wanted to be.
A couple ballistics experts had directed him and Bree Stafford to the six-story apartment building, minutes after they provided a rundown of the trigonometric jargon that had led them to the conclusion. Some type of messy equation about Tyler Haldane’s height and the bullet’s point of entry in his head was all Noah had bothered to retain.
On the top-most floor, he and Bree made their way from room to room along the side of the building that faced the psychiatric hospital. From three-quarters of a mile away, the facility looked as unassuming as the strip mall across the street.
The light crunch of dust and debris beneath footsteps drew his attention to the wide doorway at his back. White fluorescence caught the face of Bree’s watch as she produced a pair of binoculars.
The apartment complex was undergoing renovations, and electricity had not yet been restored to the building. They relied on a series of industrial battery-powered work lights to navigate their way throughout the rooms.
“You talk to the site manager yet?” Noah asked.
“Yeah.” Bree nodded as she handed off the binoculars. “He didn’t have anything. Since the place is under construction, there aren’t any security cameras around here that would’ve caught anything helpful. The gas station and that strip mall aren’t at the right angles, but we can try them tomorrow. The construction manager said everyone at the work site left before five. In the interest of preventing injuries, no one stays behind alone to do extra work or overtime.”
Noah swiped an arm over his sweaty forehead. “And Haldane was shot at closer to seven, of course. Forensics is on their way, but I haven’t seen anything out of place. No shell casing, and since this is a construction site, there will be a shitload of prints all over everything.”
Bree’s dark eyes flicked over to the wall-spanning window. There was no glass in place, so in addition to the litany of fingerprints, the forensics team would have to contend with the elements.
“Well,” she said, gesturing to the view of the sprawling city. “What about this? That psychiatric facility is almost a mile away from here, isn’t it? And from what Ted told us during that trigonometry lesson earlier, none of the other buildings between here and there would have been the right height for the shot.”
Noah nodded as he peered through the binoculars. At the highest zoom setting, he could see the crime scene techs mill about the dark splotch of blood still staining the sidewalk. Somewhere among them was Winter, but he didn’t spot her in his cursory examination.
With a low whistle, Noah glanced back to Bree as he passed the binoculars to her.
“That sounds like an impressed whistle.” Bree offered him a quick smile before she turned her attention to the window.
“It was. That’s a hell of a shot, even for a trained sniper. There are some rifles designed just for shots like that, but they’re not cheap, and they can be difficult to get ahold of. Hopefully, they’ll find the bullet, so we’ll at least know what we’re dealing with.”
“They’d have to prep for this.” Bree was still scanning the building before them. “You don’t just find a place to post up for a sniper shot at the drop of a hat. Whoever fired that shot had to have planned this.”
Noah agreed. A sniper shot was 99 percent preparation, 1 percent execution.
Distance. Wind speed. Barometric pressure. Even temperature could affect a sniper shot in unexpected ways.
“What are you thinking?”
Bree pursed her lips as she tapped a finger against the binoculars. “For motive? It’s got to be something related to the shooting in Danville. I seriously doubt anyone with a personal grudge or an ax to grind with Tyler Haldane would wait to settle their score until after he’s in police custody with four armed guards escorting him back to prison.”
“He and Kent Strickland did kill fifteen people, and I doubt those SS armbands they were wearing made them a lot of fans. We sure as shit aren’t going to be lacking for suspects.” With a sigh, he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Shit,” she spat in agreement.
He glanced over to his partner, reading the confusion on her face. “What are you thinking?” he asked again.
She was tapping her finger against the binoculars again. She often fidgeted when she was annoyed. It was a tell she needed to work on. Even after more than twenty years as an agent, she didn’t always hide her irritation. “What kinds of people usually get taken out by a sniper from almost a mile away?”
When she paused for a response, he merely shrugged.
Her finger started tapping again, answering her own question. “The kinds that are tied to a whole bunch of nasty shit, or the kinds who have enemies in some seriously high places. Even back in Baltimore and D.C., the mobsters didn’t usually take out their rivals with a damn sniper.”
Noah nodded. Bree would know. She’d worked in the Organizational Crime Division for years.
“Some of them did,” she went on, “but the shots were almost never from a distance like this. So, either Haldane’s got an enemy with a great deal of disposable income, or someone was pretty desperate to tie up a loose end.”
“You think Haldane’s part of something bigger?”
The thought that there might be a whole club of people with violent tendencies and Tyler Haldane’s twisted ideals made him sick to his stomach. But he wasn’t surprised. In his years in law enforcement and when he’d been in the military before joining the FBI, he’d learned there were plenty of twisted people with equally twisted ideals.
“I think he might be,” Bree replied with a slow nod. “But if he is, then that means they’ll probably want Kent Strickland next.”
“Strickland’s still in the hospital. He’s guarded twenty-four-seven.”
She snorted. “Just make sure he’s not close to any windows.”
Sarcasm dripped from her words, and he barely stifled a bark of laughter before he lifted his phone to pass her warning down the line.
Sarcasm or not, she wasn’t wrong.
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