A Taste of… Winter’s Rise
As the haze thinned from Jensen’s thoughts, he opened his eyes a slit. Though he could see a tinge of white light at the edge of his vision, the remainder of the room was cloaked in shadow. At the other end of the space was a door, and from the light of the narrow window, he could see a dim hallway. None of it was familiar.
Where was he?
How had he gotten here?
The recollection trickled back to him as his eyelids drooped closed. He could picture the parking lot of the bar, neon lights from the signs in the windows glinting off the damp asphalt.
Though he might have had a touch too much to drink last night—was it last night?—he had pushed aside the concern and reminded himself of his plan. A couple blocks away was a restaurant that served breakfast twenty-four hours a day, and that had been where he was headed. After a meal and a couple cups of coffee, he’d planned to return to his car to drive home.
Was he home?
No. This sterile room wasn’t part of the house he and his wife had owned for the past ten years.
Grating his teeth, he forced himself to focus on the fuzzy memory of his trip to the diner. He vaguely remembered walking down the sidewalk, his attention focused on the screen of his smartphone instead of his surroundings.
In the midst of typing an “I love you” text message to his wife, Faith Leary, the world had gone black.
That wasn’t where the memory ended, though. At least he didn’t think so. He was sure he had stepped into the restaurant, could swear he had taken a moment to bask in the aroma of roasting coffee and frying bacon as he walked through the familiar double doors.
He had walked through those doors, hadn’t he?
No, he hadn’t. As soon as the realization crossed his mind, his eyes snapped open. The world had gone black before he hit the sidewalk, but he knew he hadn’t been drunk enough to blackout.
He had been drugged. Not in the bar, but right there at the edge of the damn parking lot. A light sting in the back of his neck had given way to utter nothingness.
When he awoke the first time, his aching head had rested on a pillow, and he almost tricked himself into believing he had made it home. As he’d shifted on the hard surface beneath the light blanket, however, he wondered if he had fallen asleep on the floor beside the bed he shared with his wife.
Then, he’d opened his eyes.
He remembered how golden sunlight highlighted a square hatch in the ceiling at the other end of the narrow room. Room? He’d known right away that he’d been in an unfamiliar room.
Flinging off the sheets, a surge of adrenaline had pushed away the ache in his head as he’d leapt to his feet. In the meager illumination, he’d felt along the walls and hoped, even prayed, that he would find a door handle. Instead, he’d been greeted with nothing more than cool, smooth metal.
His movements had been fervent and soon bordered on panicked. One question had screamed over and over in his mind—where the hell was he? Even now, as he thought back, he wasn’t sure.
Once his sight had adjusted to the low light, he saw it, snapping his mind back to another memory. The dark shape of a bubble in the far corner of the ceiling. A camera. Wherever in the hell he was, someone knew he was there. Someone was watching him.
When the hatch opened, the daylight that spilled through had seemed as bright as a supernova, and he’d been forced to raise a hand to block out the hellish illumination.
“Who are you?” His voice had been hoarse as he addressed the figure descending into the space. As best as he could, he squared his shoulders.
Jensen had intended to fight.
He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. He knew how to defend himself, and this wasn’t the first time he had been in peril during his thirty-one years of life. But as the figure had approached him, the two tours in Afghanistan felt like they might as well have occurred in an alternate dimension.
The resurgence of the headache and weariness had closed in on him at the same pace as the dark figure, and the determination had drained from his disciplined fighting stance. Whatever he had been dosed with the night before had only been temporarily defeated by the flood of adrenaline, and he could have sworn the other man knew how rapidly the energy would melt from Jensen’s tired muscles.
After another sting, the world had gone black again.
And now, he was here, in a room that felt like a forgotten throwback to a 1960s asylum.
“You’re awake,” a voice called out from behind him.
He tried to turn to face the source, but his head was fixed in place by a contraption he couldn’t see.
“Who…” It was the only word he could manage. His throat felt raw, and his mouth was as dry as the distant Afghani desert. “Who are you?” The short question felt like a monumental task.
“Oh, you know me,” the woman chuckled. Even her mirth felt like ice.
He blinked, tried to focus. Tried to remember. “N-no, I d-don’t.” He hated how nervous he sounded.
Try as he might, he couldn’t place her voice. In the ensuing silence, he raked through memories of any woman with whom he had crossed paths in recent memory. None of them sounded like her. He didn’t know why she thought she knew him.
“You’ve got the wrong person,” he managed. The words were small and weak, but even the minimal effort to speak was exhausting.
“No, Jensen. I’ve got exactly who I want.” There was no doubt in her tone, no room for debate.
A metallic whir followed her statement. What the hell was that? Was that a drill? A saw?
The marked increase in his pulse made the pounding in his head more pronounced. Eyes squeezed shut like he was a grade school kid trying to hide from imaginary monsters in the dark corners of his bedroom, Jensen swallowed against the rise of bile in the back of his throat.
“I’m not going to kill you, Jensen.”
Her calm words cut through his haphazard thoughts, but he wished they hadn’t.
“In fact, you might be the lucky one. When we’re done here, you might come out of this even better than you were before. Just relax. I’ve done this plenty of times, and I know what I’m doing. You’re in good hands.”
He didn’t believe her attempt to placate his mounting anxiety.
As the metallic sound grew louder, he pictured his wife. For thirteen years, Faith had been at his side. For every celebration, every bump in the road, every new journey, he had always been able to count on her bright smile and that sparkle in her gold-flecked eyes.
This was it.
For some reason he couldn’t fathom, he was about to die, and he hadn’t even been able to send the text message to tell his beautiful wife how much he loved her.
With a smile and a five-dollar bill, Bree Stafford bade farewell to the driver of the sleek, black sedan. As she stepped onto the sidewalk, she couldn’t help the reflexive glance to the edge of the building.
Three months earlier, around that same corner, Douglas Kilroy—The Preacher, as the press loved to call him—had knocked her unconscious with a fast-acting sedative. The bastard had then loaded her into the back of a white panel van to drive to the outskirts of a little Virginia town called McCook.
Maybe the brush with such a notorious killer should have left a definitive mark on her psyche, but when she looked to the dim corner, she could find no semblance of trepidation. After all, Douglas Kilroy was dead, and the man joining her at the bar tonight was responsible for the fatal shot.
As grateful as she was to have been saved so quickly, Bree knew with a certainty she didn’t fully understand that she would have made it out of Kilroy’s grasp unscathed, one way or another. That night at the dilapidated church wasn’t the first time she had been taken captive, but she hoped it would be the last.
She turned her attention to a flicker of movement amidst a series of benches and tables to the side of the entryway. The glow of Noah Dalton’s smartphone glinted off the whites of his eyes as he locked the screen to pocket the device.
When he was outside the office, Bree thought there were few who would have guessed he was an FBI agent. Between the plaid flannel over his gray t-shirt, his worn jeans and dusty work boots, he looked more like he’d just finished up his workday as a contractor.
As she glanced down to her white button-down shirt and slim-fitting black pants, Bree felt overdressed. “What are you doing in the smoking section?” Raising her brows to offer him a questioning glance, she pulled open one of the double doors and waved him forward.
“You’re such a gentleman, Bree.” Noah Dalton flashed her one of his patented, disarming grins as he made his way into the bar. “I was playing Mahjong, not smoking, by the way. My sister always told me that the coolest people at the bar were in the smokers’ section. So far, I think I agree. It might smell worse than shit, but I’ve met some pretty cool cats in smoking sections.”
Bree couldn’t hide her surprise. “Your sister?”
The black-clad bouncer beside the doorway didn’t rise from his stool to ask for their IDs. Glancing up from his smartphone, he smiled and nodded. He knew them well.
“Yeah, my sister,” Noah replied.
“Are you guys not close? I don’t think I’ve ever even heard you say that you had a sister.”
He lifted one of his broad shoulders. “No, we are. We’re both just busy, I guess. Plus, she’s all the way out in Austin. She owns a tattoo shop out there, and word’s been getting out about how talented she is, so she’s been pretty swamped for the last year or two.” He lifted the shoulder again.
“So, she’s there and you’re here,” Bree prodded, hoping for more information on this interesting man. If she’d been straight, she thought he might be her type. If nothing else, she knew he was the type to be in her corner.
He winked. “Nice detective work, Bree. Yep. I’m here, and we’ve been, well…maybe not swamped, but you know what I mean.” As his smile faded, a flicker of despondency passed behind his green eyes.
That sadness was no small part of the reason for Bree’s proposed outing on a Thursday night. Aside from a call a few days earlier to tell Winter about the lead they’d found into her brother’s disappearance, no one in their office had heard a single word from the woman.
Though Noah made a valiant effort to conceal the dark cloud in his demeanor, Bree had worked alongside the tall man for long enough to know that Winter’s absence weighed on him, and she had seen enough of his and Winter’s interactions to know he blamed himself for their inability to locate Justin Black.
Bree’s reminders that he’d made the right decision to shoot Douglas Kilroy had been gentle at first, but in recent weeks, they had become more pointed.
If he hadn’t fired that shot at that precise moment, Winter would be dead. That was it. That was the end of the story.
Bree had been front and center for the entire series of events, and the only reason she hadn’t fired the killing shot was because she was worried the larger caliber round would have pierced through Kilroy and hit Winter.
Winter was smart, and Bree had assured Noah that even if she had harbored a sense of ill will for Kilroy’s untimely death, she would have let the misgivings go by now. Whether he didn’t believe her or he’d decided to shoulder the guilt for an unrelated reason, Bree wasn’t sure.
“Your sister sounds cool.” Bree offered him a smile, thinking of her fiancée and how talented she was. She leapt on the change of subject like a drowning woman to a raft. “Shelby’s a fantastic artist. You know that painting in our living room, right? The one above the couch?”
Bree watched Noah’s eyes move as he scanned his memory. “The water lilies and the gator? That one?”
“Yeah, that one. Shelby painted that. She grew up in Louisiana, so it’s like her little piece of home.”
“Really?” Noah scratched at the stubble darkening his chin. “Wow, that thing’s really good. It’s like a Bob Ross painting or something. Do you guys have any of her other paintings hanging up?”
“A couple.” Bree nodded, unable to keep the pride from shining through her words. “I use one of the bedrooms as an office, and she uses one of them as a studio. Her job has been busy lately, so she hasn’t had as much time for painting. But I’m sure as soon as it slows down, she’ll be back at it. You want me to give her a request for you?”
As they neared the bar, he thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded. “The décor in my place is still, I mean, it’s nonexistent. Might be nice to add a little bit of color somewhere. I can pay her for it.”
Waving a dismissive hand, Bree shook her head. “No need. You’re our friend. It’s a labor of love.”
“I’ll come up with something to repay you guys.” His grin widened as he glanced back to her. “I’ve been teaching myself to cook, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I can just come over and make you guys food for a week or something.”
“Hey, don’t say stuff like that unless you mean it, okay?” Bree laughed. “You might not be able to guess, but Shelby’s appetite is a little insane. She’s a swimmer, and that seems to be the norm for them.”
“Lucky for her, my momma only ever taught me how to cook for an army. I don’t even know how to cook meals for one person, which is why I pretty much never used to cook for myself.”
“Shelby can eat like an army, so that’s good news.” As Bree chuckled, she turned to offer a quick wave to the woman behind the bar.
With an easy smile, Noah followed suit. “Do you know her?”
The redhead returned the gesture before she made her way to greet a couple who had arrived a few minutes after Bree and Noah.
“Sort of,” Bree answered with a shrug. “Shelby loves her. A few months ago, I had to leave early one night for work, and Shelby just sat up at the bar and talked to her for hours. Now, whenever Shelby sees her, she has to give her a hug. Honestly, it’s pretty adorable.”
As they took a seat at what had become their favored booth, Noah looked thoughtful. “Huh, I guess that makes sense then.”
“What?” Bree furrowed her eyebrows. “I think you left off the first part of that, friend.”
“Oh, right, yeah. She’s the one who pointed out your friends that night that…well…you know.” He left the sentiment unfinished and flashed her a hapless look.
“Oh…” Bree lifted both eyebrows. “The night Kilroy nabbed me? Yeah, I remember that night.”
There was a hint of self-deprecation in Noah’s chuckle as he reached for a menu.
“It’s fine, Dalton.” She laughed. “That’s not even the first time I’ve been kidnapped. I used to work in organized crime, remember? Way back in the day, back when you were probably still in grade school.”
“Really?” He glanced up from the menu. “You’ve never mentioned that. Looks like we’re learning all sorts of new stuff about each other tonight.”
“I guess so.” Bree snickered. “I’ll make you a deal. You tell me more about your tattoo artist sister, and I’ll tell you about some of the crazy shit that happened when I worked in organized crime in Baltimore.”
“I told you, it was forever ago. Twenty years, my friend. I was in Maryland for about five years, and then I came here. And let me tell you, organized crime is something else. Completely different animal, and definitely not for the faint of heart.”
He gave her a “you’ve got to be shitting me” look.
Bree laughed. “Not that any of what we do is for the faint of heart, but the work from organized crime can follow you home if you’re not careful. I never went undercover or anything, but I knew some people who did. That work, that’s either something you’re cut out for, or you’re not. There’s not really any middle ground.”
“All right, I hope you know what I have to do now.” With a clack, he tapped his menu against the polished tabletop. “I’ll have to start making jokes about The Wire when we’re at work.”
As she laughed, Bree didn’t bother to conceal the disbelief from her tone. “You’ve seen The Wire? That doesn’t really strike me as your type of show.”
“I’m not sure how to take that.” He paused to feign a contemplative look, which made him look even younger. “But, to answer your question, of course I’ve seen The Wire. It’s the best show of all time. Why? What did you think I watched?”
She thought about it for a good ten seconds. “Honestly, I’ve got no idea.” Bree’s smile widened as she spread her hands. “Like you said, we’re learning all sorts of new stuff about one another tonight.”
As she watched him laugh yet again, Bree figured she would give him a rundown of her entire FBI career as long as it kept his thoughts away from the desolate rut in which he had been stuck for the last few months.
* * *
The Richmond FBI office was sparsely populated at the evening hour, and the only person SSA Aiden Parrish passed on his way to Max Osbourne’s office was Sun Ming. Even three months after she had taken a bullet to the shoulder, one of her arms still rested in a blue sling.
She and one other agent from their office had responded to the request for aid on the night Douglas Kilroy was shot and killed. Their assistance hadn’t been requested in the rundown church outside McCook, but at the site of a mass shooting turned hostage situation.
One of the two assailants had been shot and wounded in the firefight, but not until after he fired off a round that hit Sun’s left shoulder. Cop shows on television made gunshot wounds to the shoulder seem superficial, but complete recoveries were rare, and quick recoveries were rarer still. Even after extensive physical therapy, Sun would be lucky to regain full use of her arm.
Between Sun’s injury and Winter’s absence, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that they would never recover from that fateful night.
For the past three months, he and Noah Dalton had set aside their differences to search for any trace of Justin Black’s whereabouts. The investigation had been tedious, but at the beginning of the week, their diligence finally paid off.
They’d been given a tip just a few days ago, and it was exactly the break they’d been needing. A new grandmother who had been out of the country for the past six months to stay with her daughter and new grandbaby remembered seeing Douglas Kilroy at the same storage building they utilized.
After finally gaining entrance to the storage site, they scoured The Preacher’s meager possessions. They hadn’t found much, but they’d discovered an indication that a high school aged boy had been under Kilroy’s care for an unspecified number of years. Aside from the fact that the kid existed, they had pitiful little else to go on, but Aiden had become so accustomed to uncovering nothing that the vague piece of information seemed monumental.
Max Osbourne’s door was open as Aiden approached, and he paused to rap his knuckles against the metal frame. The Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Violent Crimes Task Force’s eyes snapped away from his two computer monitors and up to Aiden. “Parrish. Come in.”
SAC Osbourne tapped a couple keys before he turned to face the set of chairs in front of his desk. Both elbows propped atop the matte black surface, he scooted forward.
As Aiden sat, Max’s gaze never wavered. “To what do I owe the pleasure, SSA Parrish?”
The skepticism in his voice was plain to hear. Aiden and Max didn’t cross paths often, and he could already tell his request for a meeting had piqued the older man’s suspicions.
“It’s been three days since Noah Dalton contacted Winter Black. Why the hell hasn’t she shown up yet? We can’t move forward in this investigation without her.”
Aiden figured an upfront query would be less likely to put Max on edge. He didn’t know the seasoned SAC well, but in each dealing he had with his boss, he had gathered that the man appreciated a direct approach.
“You know I can’t tell you that, Parrish.” Max’s voice was flat, almost as if he had expected the question from the get-go.
“Since when are you bound to secrecy about situations like this?” He made his best effort to match the unimpressed tone, but Aiden doubted that anyone could exude quite the same blasé air as Max.
“When my agents take a personal leave of absence, I keep their reasons to myself. It’s not your business unless Agent Black wants it to be your business, Parrish. If you want to know why she’s gone, maybe you should ask her.”
Aiden barely managed to keep from rolling his eyes. “I tried. She won’t answer any of our calls. Not mine, not Dalton’s, not even Agent Stafford’s.”
“Did you stop to think that maybe she’s got a good reason for that? You’re a smart guy, Parrish. Head of the damn Behavioral Analysis Unit, so I figure out of all the people here, you’d be able to come up with a reason someone might need a break from their friends and coworkers.”
Aiden cleared his throat, pissed at the taunt and doing his best not to show it. “There are many reasons someone would isolate themselves, but at this point, it’s interfering with an ongoing investigation.”
The statement was true, but the need to uncover a new lead wasn’t the main driving force behind his adamancy to bring Winter back to Richmond. He clenched his jaw at the thought and forced himself to pay attention to Osbourne’s movements.
“Then do what you’d do with any other witness.” Shrugging, Max leaned back in his oversized chair.
“You want me to get a court order to make a federal agent come back to work?” Aiden surmised, narrowing his eyes at the flicker of amusement on Max’s face.
“You do what you need to do, Parrish. I trust your instincts. If you think that’s what you’ve got to do to get ahold of Agent Black, then you know where the courthouse is. I won’t stop you.”
In the silence that descended on the room, it took all of Aiden’s self-control not to dive over the desk and wrap his hands around Max’s throat.
A day or two after Kilroy’s death, Winter had been officially moved back to Violent Crimes. By the time he’d realized she had no plans to return to work for the foreseeable future, her personnel records were already under Max’s lock and key.
Though Aiden harbored no real malice toward Max Osbourne, he forced himself to bite back a handful of irritable observations at the man’s unabashed stonewalling. He might as well have been talking to an actual chunk of granite.
“Damn it, Osbourne,” Aiden nearly growled. “You can’t just tell me when she’s going to be back?”
“If I thought it’d get you out of my office, it would’ve been the first thing I said,” Max replied. “Because I was just about to leave, and my wife made lasagna for dinner. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you, but that’s just because you’ve never had Amy’s lasagna. If that lasagna gets cold before I can eat it, I’m going to hold you personally responsible.”
“For god’s sake,” Aiden muttered.
“That’s a no, by the way. No, I won’t tell you when she plans to be back. No, I won’t tell you why she’s gone. Think of it this way. Back when you were a field agent, if you had something personal come up that necessitated a leave of absence, would you want your superior telling all his or her colleagues about it? And if they did, would you ever trust them again afterward?” Max leaned forward, pinning Aiden with a hard stare. “If you answer yes to either one of those questions, then I’m going to call bullshit.”
He was right.
“Fine,” Aiden ground out as he pushed himself out of the chair. “I’ll make sure I tell Winter what a great job you did protecting her personal information.”
“You do that,” Max replied, looking satisfied as he linked his hands behind his head. “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Good night, Osbourne.”
“One more thing, Parrish.”
Aiden had just reached the doorway, and he paused, turning back to face the SAC.
“Winter Black’s a damn fine agent, and I’ve never seen her waver in her commitment to this department. I don’t know what kind of shit you pulled to get her reassigned to BAU or to pull her into the Kilroy investigation, but if you ever do it again, we’re going to have a much bigger problem than cold lasagna.”
Aiden bristled. “I—”
Max stood, his knuckles taking his weight on the desk as he leaned forward and bulldozed on. “I don’t know what kind of personal interest you’ve got in her, but you need to check that shit at the door. You’re a leader now, Parrish, not a fucking babysitter. Winter Black is her own person, and she’s capable of making her own decisions.”
Max held up a hand. “I don’t care if you did any of that underhanded shit in the interest of keeping her behind a desk so she’d be safe. Honestly, if that was your logic, then it’s a little chauvinistic, don’t you think? You’re not her keeper. Winter Black is a grown woman, and she doesn’t need a protector. If you keep trying to protect her, you’ll only stifle her. She’s going to do good work here, and you can either hold her back, or you can get out of her way.”
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