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Mary Stone - Winter's Peak: Winter Black Season Two (Winter Black FBI Mystery Series Book 23)

A Taste of… Winter’s Peak

Chapter One

Inside a world of dark shapes and muffled sounds, Parker Roy tried to curl in on himself—an instinctive, protective action against some unseen predator. But thick ropes limited his movements, biting into his flesh with every small shift. His mind raced, each thought a mix of fear and confusion.

He woke up face down, bound and gagged in the back of some stranger’s moving vehicle. His head throbbed, like coming out of anesthesia. The rough fabric in his mouth stifled his attempts to cry out, leaving him helplessly scanning his memory for clues as to how this happened.

All he remembered was clocking out of his work computer and heading toward his vehicle.

As he was inserting his keys to unlock his pickup, someone swooped in from behind, wrapping a rope around his neck. Parker thrashed, trying to scream. His assailant held on with the strength of a boa constrictor.

He remembered snippets of a man—definitely a guy dressed in black, a cloth mask covering his face—binding him. Goggles obscured his eyes, the anti-glare coating winking green in the dim light.

“Wrap the spool with the tag end…and…drive the knots to the bottom…” the man had mumbled to himself, narrating the deft movements of his gloved hands as he trussed Parker.

After that, Parker’s vision brightened and went spotty, as if he’d been staring at the sun, and a cacophony of sound blared in his ears before everything turned to black. As he passed out, he’d been sure he was dying.

Sometime during the interminable drive, his consciousness came back into focus like candles being lit in a dark room one by one. Awareness of his body came next. Pain and pressure. A rope knot at the back of his neck, plus several down his spine, jabbing into his skin and vertebrae. His legs were lashed together and bent back behind him. More knots dug into the soles of his feet.

Every time the SUV bounced or took a fast curve, his body smacked into the hatch door. Wrapped tighter than a pork tenderloin, he jounced around in the back of vehicle, the knots tightening with every bump, leeching his limbs of blood.

He struggled to swallow. A wad of rope or nylon Paracord had been stuffed into his mouth. It prevented him from closing his jaw fully, so saliva drooled from the corner of his lips. The tears in his eyes brought about by the pain and the terror of his situation made his nose run.

He could barely breathe.

After what felt like forever, the SUV came to a stop.

Parker’s eyes darted from side to side, but there was nothing to see through the back window save a few twinkling stars in a cool black sky. Blood rushed in his ears, his heart hammering. He listened as the driver stepped out, slamming the door behind him. Heavy footfalls crunched on rocks or gravel. Then the hatch flew open.

The man in the mask stood before him, looking down. Again, Parker tried to scream.

Who are you? Why are you doing this? Let me go! I’ll give you anything!

The rope was so tight—the ball knot jabbing at the back of his throat—all that came out was a pathetic squeak.

Silhouetted by a crescent moon, the stranger grasped Parker by the ropes on his back and dragged him out of the SUV, dropping him on the ground. The impact pulled the ropes still tighter.

Parker was hitched to something—a slip line in the ties attached to something stationary. Every motion pulled against it, constricting, compressing.

When the stranger took a spool of Paracord and fixed it to a large carabiner on his hip, Parker knew the specialized kernmantle rope was no coincidence. This person was a rock climber.

Parker tried rolling over to see where the stranger had taken him. He smelled pine and dirt. Wilderness. Saw jagged rocks framed by fluffy trees. In any other scenario, a great place to climb. Maybe he’d even climbed here before. It was less than an hour out of town, possibly somewhere in El Barranco State Park.

Grabbing the rope near the back of Parker’s neck where he’d tied in a fixed loop, the stranger dragged him down a narrow path. Parker’s legs scraped on rocks and spiny plants. They were in the middle of nowhere, no one but the moon and stars to witness his plight.

Parker struggled. Each breath was harder to take. He couldn’t feel his fingers anymore, his feet. He was so cold.

The man dragging him was neither huge nor small, his physique perfectly average, at least as far as Parker could see. But he was strong, never once faltering as he walked.

Finally, the masked man threw Parker against the trunk of a tree. He snatched a knife from a pack on his back and, in one swift and clumsy motion, cut the binds from around Parker’s mouth.

The blade scraped across Parker’s skin, splitting his lips.

“Scream if you want to.” The stranger’s voice was low, gravelly, and cold, intentionally terrifying. “No one can hear you.”

“Please, please, let me go!” Parker blubbered, blood and snot pouring down his face and neck, spattering the earth below him. “What did I ever do to you?”

The stranger stood absolutely still, his stance wide as he gazed down. “You did nothing, that’s what you did.” He wrapped his hand around the nylon line leading from his belt to Parker’s binds. “Wrap the spool with the tag end. Overhand, use the standing.”

What’s with the fucking commentary?! Parker felt like he was trapped in some kind of YouTube tutorial for serial killers.

“Please.” Parker’s eyes darted, desperately watching those quick hands go to work on yet another knot. “I don’t understand what you mean! I never hurt anybody!”

“Second knot to the tag. Pull the standing tight.” The stranger took the loop he’d made and placed it over Parker’s neck.

“You’re crazy!” Parker threw his weight back, trying to pull away, as the stranger’s hand tightened on the rope.

“Drive the knots to the bottom.” He yanked hard. The loop he’d made snatched tight, cutting off Parker’s final breath.

Parker squirmed and struggled, knots driving deep enough to snap his bones. The creak of the rope shrieked in his ears.

The last thing Parker saw were those green lenses, hovering in front of his face. The stranger watched him suffer until the nighttime breeze stilled and the stars in the inky sky faded…and he was gone.

Chapter Two

Winter Black drummed her fingers on the plastic lid of her mocha latte as the woman on the other end of her phone droned on. The case was done—a simple matter of tracking down a thieving ex-employee so he could be served with papers. All and all, she’d worked on it for about two hours, mainly listening to her client talk more than actually providing any services.

Tact had never been Winter’s strong suit. If not for the matter of collecting the second half of her fee, she would’ve just cut the woman off and ended the call.

“By the Lord God, I can’t thank you enough, Ms. Black,” Minnie said. “Why, Everett used to be such a good employee. You never can know just who you can trust…”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Sitting behind her desk, Winter caught sight of an SXSW poster on one office wall—an orange cow on a yellow background kicking its hind legs in the air. The cow had a conspiratorial look on its face, like it wanted to start a fire. Winter had found it when she’d gone thrifting with her gramma for decorations for her new office. She still wasn’t sure if she loved it or hated it. It made her feel something. That was all she knew for sure.

Sighing, she let her focus continue past the other posters—the Austin Crawfish Festival, the Oyster Festival. The first annual Squirrel Fest, her favorite.

Through the interior window that gave her a view of the entire office, Winter spotted her assistant. Where Ariel sat at her desk in the front area, her long, curly brown hair hung loose, bouncing a little with each enthusiastic keyboard stroke.

Winter smiled. Moments like this were precisely why she had an assistant.

“You are so welcome,” Winter cut off the chatty old woman. “I’m afraid I have another client meeting. My assistant will help you get everything wrapped up.”

“But—”

Winter transferred the call and yelled, “I need you to collect my fee from line two.”

“You got it!” Ariel tossed a bright smile over her shoulder. That young woman was a bundle of untapped energy, always ready and willing to take on anything Winter threw her way.

Good luck, girl.

As she turned back to the open laptop on the desk before her, Winter caught sight of the front door opening in her periphery.

A woman stepped inside, her brown ponytail wet from the spring drizzle outside. Her brightly made-up eyes scanned the office. She was dressed in a tight white t-shirt and high-waisted khaki cargo pants with hiking boots. With her long eyelashes, thick lips, and huge boobs, she would’ve made a good Lara Croft in the inevitable Tomb Raider remake.

Rising from her desk, Winter stepped through her door into the lobby. Poor Ariel was still trying to get a word in edgewise on the phone.

“Good morning.” Winter smiled, leaning against the doorframe.

“Are you Winter Black?” The newcomer’s voice was soft and quiet, even a little shaky. Her deerlike eyes flashed to Winter’s face, then down to the floor as she gently poked at the floor with a boot.

“I am. How can I help you?”

“I want to hire you. I, uh…” She was wringing her hands together, eyes darting. Nervous about something, maybe even afraid. Like so many people who found themselves in need of Winter’s services. “I need your help.”

“Come into my office.” Winter held open the door for the woman and gestured to a worn leather chair across from her desk. She snatched up her lukewarm mocha latte and took a sip before settling into her own rolling seat. After opening a blank case file on her laptop, she poised her fingers over the keys. “Can I have your name, please?”

“Helen. Helen Marchand. I want to hire you to look into my employer. You would keep that confidential, right?”

“Absolutely. Who’s your employer?”

“I work for Cumberland. It’s an outdoor equipment company with a focus on mountain climbing.”

Winter typed the name into her intake form, then copied and pasted for a quick Google search. “Cumberland Mountain Climbing Equipment, LLC. They sell mostly in bulk to retail stores like Sierra, but also have an online shop and a few storefronts of their own. Publicly traded, their CEO is—”

“Nathan Lynch. He’s my boss. He’s the one I want to look into.” Helen crossed her legs. Her hands kept wringing, skin turning white with the pressure.

“What do you suspect him of?”

“I don’t suspect him of anything. I know. Sexual harassment.”

Winter raised an eyebrow, lifting her hands off the keyboard. “Oh?”

“It’s not just me. It’s every woman in the company. He treats the office like his own private nightclub. I tried going to HR, but the hiring manager doesn’t care. He’s just Nathan’s crony. I don’t know what to do. It’s not about me. I can handle it. It’s just—”

“Ms. Marchand, I—”

“Please, call me Helen.”

Winter bobbed her chin. “Helen, then. What would you ideally want to get out of hiring me?”

“I want Nathan to get what he deserves. He should be fired, arrested, and on the sex offender registry.”

That wasn’t the answer Winter had expected. “Sexual harassment is usually a civil matter. Have you tried talking to a lawyer?”

“I don’t want money.” She shook her head hard. “Besides, there’s no point until I have proof. I talked to another P.I., and he told me to try hiding a camera at my desk. I have footage of Nathan making all kinds of sick comments to girls in the office, harassing them. Telling them how to dress.”

That sat in Winter’s stomach like rotten milk. Still, she had to be realistic. “None of that is necessarily criminal behavior. No matter how disgusting they are, words are still a civil matter. Unless you suspect he’s been doing something worse…?” Winter trailed off, hoping the woman would know what she meant.

Ariel had finished with her call and drifted toward Winter’s open door. She slid into a chair in the corner of the office, her big, brown eyes studying Helen. In her right arm, she cradled her trusty iPad as she typed out notes with her left hand.

Helen took a deep breath and sighed. “Yes. I think he did.”

The rotten feeling in Winter’s gut twisted sharply. She waited patiently for Helen to continue, a leftover habit from her time in the FBI. Whether she was talking to a perpetrator, a witness, or a victim, she found most people were so uncomfortable with silence that she often got more out of them by saying nothing than by rattling off a dozen questions.

“There was a new employee. Christina Norris. Really sweet little thing. She had a side business teaching young kids how to climb. She was in her twenties.” Helen sniffled and discreetly wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “I think Nathan did something to her.”

A throbbing anger pulsed to life at the back of Winter’s brain. “What makes you think that?”

“Christina…” Her voice choked. She cleared her throat and swallowed hard. “She quit about two weeks ago. No explanation. Didn’t even tell her boyfriend why. And then, last weekend, they found her. She’d hung herself a few days after quitting.” She shivered out a quavering sigh. “And I think it’s Nathan’s fault.”

The red-hot flame in Winter began to flicker, burning her insides like coal. “Ariel, bring Helen the new-client paperwork.”

Helen straightened. “Does that mean you’ll help me?”

Winter nodded. “If your boss is assaulting his employees, I’ll find proof of it. I guarantee it.”

“Thank you. I just…thank you.” Helen pulled her phone from her purse and checked it before rising from her seat. “I should go.”

Ariel approached and handed her a white folder. “This has all the official docs, as well as a lists of FAQs. If you’d rather do the paperwork online, there’s a QR code in there.”

“Thank you.” Helen flashed Ariel a smile, then Winter, but her face held no joy. She headed back outside into the cloudy day, her shoulders hunched as she scurried to her car.

With her eyes narrowed, Winter watched Helen through the glass wall that faced the street. The woman kept checking over her shoulder, as if she thought somebody might be following her. How much had she risked by coming to the office?

Ariel stepped up beside her, hugging her iPad to her chest. “I’ll get started looking into Nathan Lynch’s history.”

“Don’t forget to look into Helen too.” Winter went back into her office. She couldn’t officially get started until Helen returned the contract with her retainer fee, but her brain was already turning on the case.

It was difficult to imagine a young woman taking her life over a few untoward comments or wandering hands. But maybe there was more to the story.

It’s lonely at the top. And deadly at the bottom.

Sexual harassment isn’t the type of case Private Investigator Winter Black usually takes. But it’s a welcome distraction from whoever’s been sending creepy, anonymous text messages to her phone and set up cameras to spy on her home and office. And after her new client reveals that one of her female coworkers hanged herself after fending off their boss’s sexual advances, Winter suspects there’s more to the story.

When another woman disappears, she’s certain.

Posing as an employee, Winter sets her sights on … Read More