A Taste of... Winter's storm
Before he stepped off the packed earth trail, Jackson Fisher cast a paranoid glance around the clearing. Though the moon was almost full, a handful of clouds had moved in to obscure all but a faint glow. Even if the sky was clear, the hiking trail he was about to leave cut through a wooded area, and the canopy of tree branches blocked out any light from the moon or stars.
In the clearing, however, Jackson was afforded a clear view of the moon’s dim glow. The meager illumination was more ominous than helpful.
As he strode through the clearing, Jackson shook himself out of the thoughts. Just because he couldn’t see Jaime yet didn’t mean he wasn’t there. Jackson needed to focus.
Outdoor meetings with Jaime in the dead of night weren’t a new occurrence, but Jackson couldn’t help but feel like he’d wandered onto the set of a horror film. According to Jaime, his brain worked clearest at night, and the kid hated cities. As far as Jaime was concerned, the more rural, the better.
Jackson had never been a fan of metropolitan areas, either, but right now he wished they’d agreed to meet at a twenty-four-hour diner. Or a damn mall. A festival with a million people pressed in on every side would have suited him better than the eerie quiet dancing on his nerves.
He should just leave, he knew, but he needed this meeting. Just because he and Jaime disagreed on their methods didn’t mean Jackson could afford to cut ties with him. Jaime was a man of action, and their cause needed men like Jaime.
As a show of good faith, Jackson had reluctantly agreed to meet with Jaime at the isolated area. The kid was volatile, but he appreciated small, polite gestures.
Now, Jackson had to hope that this display of goodwill would start their dialogue off on the right track.
Slowing his breathing to a quiet rhythm, he listened to the rustle of the tree branches in the night breeze. The sound was unobtrusive, but at the same time, it might have blocked out the slight disturbance of footsteps on the grassy clearing.
A flicker of movement from a line of shrubs behind a picnic bench jerked Jackson’s attention away from the edge of the forest. Despite his efforts to keep his breathing measured, he took in a sharp breath at the sudden disturbance.
He’d looked over the area behind the picnic table, and he was sure he’d spotted nothing out of the ordinary. Still, somehow, there he was. Jaime Peterson.
With both hands thrust into his pockets, Jaime walked up to stand just to the side of the wooden bench. Jackson slowed his advance but didn’t let his stare waver from the shadowy figure.
In the darkness, Jaime’s trademark olive drab jacket looked black. As he moved to close the distance between them, his dusty work boots made little more than a whisper of sound against the lush grass.
Truthfully, Jackson didn’t want to stand any closer to the lunatic than was absolutely necessary. But he couldn’t back up now. He wouldn’t back up now. In front of Jaime Peterson, Jackson would show no weakness, no hint of anxiety, not the slightest shred of fear.
Crossing his arms, Jackson felt the reassuring weight of the forty-five he’d tucked into a holster beneath his arm. He was sure Jaime was armed, but the kid’s weapon of choice tended to be a six-inch hunting knife. Jackson had only seen him brandish the blade once, back when they first met.
Back then, Jackson had been confident that Jaime shared the same goals and ideals as he did. He was sure Jaime’s ties to Tyler Haldane and Kent Strickland were proof enough of his dedication.
He should have known better.
The second he saw the look in those eerie blue eyes, he should have known that Jaime Peterson wasn’t like him.
Jackson had been dedicated to the cause since before Tyler Haldane and Kent Strickland had taken up arms to spread their message at the Riverside Mall in Danville, Virginia. Jackson’s father and his father before him had been dedicated to the same cause as Tyler and Kent—to return the country to its glory days. The days when women knew their place and men could be men. But he should have known that Jaime was different.
Jaime wasn’t dedicated to a cause. The kid was a psychopath, and he was out to advance only one cause. He served only himself. He used the guise of their mission merely to satiate his own bloodlust.
Despite the realization, Jackson had still accepted Jaime’s offer to meet up at a tattered picnic table just off a quiet wooded trail. Even if Jaime served no cause aside from his own desire to kill, the kid could still be useful. He was a weapon. If Jackson found a way to point him in the direction of their adversaries, he could fire him like a Howitzer. Jaime would do the dirty work, and Jackson’s hands would remain clean. When the cops came to investigate the series of brutal murders, they would wind up at Jaime’s doorstep, not Jackson’s.
But a weapon like Jaime Peterson was volatile on its best day, and downright treacherous on its worst. Jaime might have been a psychopath, but he wasn’t stupid.
He should have known Jaime wasn’t one of them.
The shadows shifted along Jaime’s scruffy face as his lips curved into a smile that sent a wave of icy fear down Jackson’s spine. “You came. Honestly, I wasn’t sure you would.”
Jackson forced a neutral expression to his face and nodded. “We’re still in this fight together, brother. Just because we don’t agree on everything doesn’t make us enemies.”
The statement was at least partly true. Hopefully, the half-truth would keep Jaime’s suspicions at bay. Jackson wasn’t here to mend fences with the kid. He was here to sever their relationship.
As Jaime returned the nod, the same unsettling smile remained on his lips. “I’m glad to hear that.”
The ice in his voice told Jackson that he was anything but glad.
As much as Jackson wanted to back away four or five paces, he held his ground. “We’re fighting the same fight, but we aren’t fighting it the same way.”
Jaime lifted an eyebrow. “So, you think that man I killed for you should have been allowed to live? He was married to a black woman. You and I both know that’s unnatural.”
Grating his teeth, Jackson nodded. “I know. I understand why you did it, but I don’t see how we can sustain our fight by murdering civilians. We need to think bigger. We need to gather our forces, and we need to target the weaklings in our government. Not by killing them, but by usurping their power. That is how we win this fight. We cut the head from the snake, not the tail.”
Jaime tilted his head to the side in what Jackson could tell was a feigned show of pensiveness. “And how, exactly, would we do that without killing them?”
Jackson opened his mouth to reply, but Jaime cut him off.
“They still have too much support. We’re here to get rid of that support. We’re here to finish what Tyler and Kent started. They weren’t afraid of spilling a little blood. The only way we can get the support we need is by proving that we aren’t weak. By proving that we’ll do what’s necessary to make sure our message reaches an audience.”
Even as he racked his brain, Jackson knew he didn’t have a suitable rebuttal. He couldn’t say that the faces of the man and woman he’d killed haunted his dreams, even in his waking moments. He couldn’t express regret or remorse.
Finally, Jackson shook his head. “I can’t help you with that, Jaime. You need to fight in your way, and I need to go my way. Even if we’re fighting for the same cause, we can’t work together if we don’t fight in the same way.”
As Jaime’s face went carefully blank, the clearing lapsed into silence. The distant hoot of an owl and the hushed whisper of a temperate night breeze were the only sounds as the seconds ticked away.
Parting ways with Jaime Peterson was like disarming a bomb. One wrong move, and shrapnel would rip through Jackson’s body like he was made of paper mâché.
When Jaime spoke again, his voice shattered the eerie spell of quiet. “Okay.”
Okay? That was it? That was all he had to say?
Before Jackson could stammer out a response, Jaime met his gaze and laughed, the sound splitting the quiet of the night. “What’s that look for? You look like you’ve wound up in the middle of a warzone or something. What, did you think I was going to kill you? Jesus, Jackson.” Shaking his head, Jaime pulled his hands from his pockets and rested his hands to his hips. “Stop acting so paranoid.”
Jackson swallowed as his heart rate increased, adrenaline spilling into his system. The remark had been made to placate him, but he still wasn’t so sure he believed anything that came out of Jaime’s mouth. All he managed in response was a nod.
Jaime’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. A less keen observer might have missed the gradual movement as Jaime slid one hand around his back beneath his jacket, changing his stance to cover the motion. The action was slow and deliberate, but Jackson had been put on high alert as soon as the psychopath moved his hands.
“You’re right.” Jaime shrugged, and his hand moved a little more. “We’d be better off if we were both playing to our strengths. Yours is communicating, and mine is…well…”
In a blur of motion, the pale moonlight flashed against silver as Jaime unsheathed his favored hunting knife. By the time the blade was in Jaime’s gloved hand, Jackson had only just wrapped his fingers around the grip of his forty-five.
He already knew he would be too slow to brandish the weapon, but he’d be damned if he didn’t try. Jaime had brought a knife to a gun fight, and Jackson had the gun.
But the speed with which he’d produced the knife didn’t seem humanly possible. Jackson wasn’t out of shape, though he carried a little extra weight on his broad frame. Jaime, on the other hand, was tall and lean. And he was fast.
With one swift step, Jaime closed the distance between them just as Jackson pulled his forty-five free of the holster. Jackson didn’t have time to so much as bring the weapon to bear when Jaime arced his arm down with the same blinding speed.
Fire ripped through Jackson’s forearm as the blade tore through muscle and tendon with a sickening wet rip. Jackson didn’t remember initiating the sound, but a sharp growl of pain escaped his lips. The world was moving in slow motion, and he felt as if he was fighting his way through molasses.
He clenched his hand as tightly as he could manage, but the effort to maintain his grip on the forty-five was for naught. Though he didn’t know much about human anatomy, he could only assume that Jaime had severed a tendon or damaged a muscle. Each minute movement sent a new fire rippling through Jackson’s forearm, all the way up to his shoulder.
With a muffled thump, the forty-five fell to the grass.
The glint of the pale moonlight was dulled by the blood that stained the blade as Jaime retracted his arm for another blow. As Jaime brought his arm down to drive the blade into Jackson’s heart, he frantically pivoted his body to the side.
Rather than pierce Jackson’s heart, the hunting knife cut deep just above his collarbone. A freshly fanned fire licked at each and every nerve ending along Jackson’s shoulder and chest. For a split-second, he was almost convinced that Jaime had indeed hit his heart.
As Jaime sidestepped to follow Jackson’s movement, the muted light glinted off the wicked blade like it was an otherworldly weapon and not just a hunting knife. Another series of clouds had moved in to obscure the moon and stars. How fitting for what Jackson was sure were his final moments of life.
No. I won’t let this psychopath win. Not tonight.
Jackson took a frantic step backward as he clasped at the newest wound with his uninjured hand. The forty-five was still on the ground, but Jackson knew better than to try to secure the weapon. The second he turned around to reach for the handgun, Jaime would seize his opportunity and jam the blade into Jackson’s lung.
He needed to run. He knew he couldn’t outpace Jaime for long, but as long as he could get to his car, he would be in the clear.
Spitting out a string of obscenities, Jaime stepped forward and raised the knife again.
With a sharp intake of breath, Jackson spun around on one foot and darted away from the clearing. He trudged directly into the thicket that formed the perimeter of the picnic area, but he didn’t balk as the branches of a handful of shrubs scratched at his cheeks. The fire of his two stab wounds far outweighed any potential discomfort that came with a jaunt through thick vegetation.
As he emerged from the line of bushes, he increased his pace to an outright sprint. He was sure Jaime was right on his heels, but he couldn’t focus on the kid’s proximity right now. With one hand clamped down on the deep shoulder wound and the other rendered all but useless by a well-placed cut, Jackson had to use all his energy to keep one foot in front of the other.
Adrenaline cut through the fire of the injuries as he zigzagged around tall trees and unruly bushes. As he approached a fallen log, he realized that he had no idea where he was going. He thought he’d taken off in the direction of the gravel parking area, but now, he wasn’t so sure.
For the first time since he’d started to run, Jackson dared a glance over his shoulder. Though he half-expected to see the menacing shape of Jaime’s tall form, the area was still. Trees stood close to one another like a series of shadowy sentinels, but try as he might, Jackson couldn’t spot so much as a hint of movement.
Despite Jaime’s absence, Jackson kept his ragged breathing as quiet as he could manage. After another paranoid glance around the area, he picked his way over to hunch behind a jagged, moss-covered rock.
If he wanted to get out of these woods, he needed to get his bearings. He carried a compass whenever he went for a hike or a hunt, but he hadn’t thought he’d need the device tonight. When he left his car to trudge up the trail to meet Jaime that night, he hadn’t expected to wind up in the middle of a forest.
Not that he knew which direction would lead him to his car, anyway. If he’d thought to bring his compass, he’d have stopped to get his bearings, but he’d taken no such precaution. A foolish mistake. One of many mistakes he’d made that night.
After wiping the blood off one hand, Jackson reached into a back pocket for his smartphone. Though he wasn’t surprised to see that he had no service in the isolated woodland, he barely managed to bite back a handful of four-letter words.
He was lost. In the middle of a forest at half-past midnight with a psychopath on his tail, Jackson was lost.
Bile stung the back of his throat as he slumped down to a low crouch, giving himself a few more moments to think. He needed to think.
As he slowed his movements and the adrenaline receded, the two knife wounds felt like those parts of his body had been permanently set ablaze. He’d heard from soldiers that the pain from a sudden injury like a gunshot was almost too much for a human’s mind to process. As a result, such a traumatic injury felt more akin to a burning ember they couldn’t shake.
He’d retained skepticism, but now, he suspected the stories were all true. The wounds on his arm and collarbone had taken on a life of their own. Whenever Jackson breathed or shifted in place, he stoked a fire he couldn’t see.
He could deal with one situation or the other. If he was only being chased by a psychopath, he could outrun or outsmart them. If he had only been lost, he could keep walking until his phone had a signal. But he wasn’t so sure he could handle both at the same time.
Plus, he was bleeding. Badly.
As he looked down at the front of his t-shirt, he watched blood seeping steadily from the burning injury on his shoulder.
How long did it take a person to bleed out? How long until hypovolemic shock settled in?
He didn’t know, but if he didn’t do something, one or both of those possibilities would become real. Just as he started to pull off his jacket to construct a makeshift bandage, he froze in place. The sound was faint, but he was sure he’d just heard the crackle of leaves or branches.
He kept still, and soon, his lungs ached from holding his breath. Despite the discomfort, he still didn’t dare to breathe.
Something was out there. Something, or someone.
And that someone had a name. A mission.
When the faint snap sounded out again, the disturbance was more noticeable. It might have been a wild animal—a coyote or an opossum, maybe a raccoon. But it was just as likely that the sound had been caused by Jaime’s careful footsteps.
Jackson balanced himself on one hand as he crept closer to the edge of the boulder. He inhaled slowly through his nose and blinked repeatedly against the darkness. From beneath the cover of the trees, the moonlight was even fainter than it had been in the clearing.
Each inch of movement was agony, but Jackson kept his breathing silent until he was afforded a glimpse of the same area from which he had come. In the darkness, no shadows stirred.
Jackson held the position as another surge of adrenaline rushed through his tired body. He knew he hadn’t imagined the sounds. He knew something had been there.
Clenching his jaw, he started to ease himself back to the relative shelter of the rock.
Before he settled back into his position, another crack splintered the night. A fresh dump of adrenaline surged through his body as he realized that this noise came from behind him.
Ignoring the newly stoked fire that ripped through his shoulder, he snapped his head around to face the source of the sound. But it didn’t matter how quickly he moved. He was too late.
Even in the pitch darkness of the woods, Jackson could still make out the eerie blue shade of Jaime’s eyes. As he jammed the blade through Jackson’s ribs, the smiling psychopath never broke eye contact.
Clasping the hem of Jackson’s shirt with one hand, Jaime leaned in closer. “You disappointed me, Jackson. You showed real promise, and then you pissed it down your leg. Just like the others.”
The taste of iron spread over Jackson’s tongue. “O-others?”
Jaime’s laugh was more a taunt. “What, you thought you were special? Thought you were the first?” He twisted the knife smiling as Jackson screamed. “You’re number three,” Jaime continued, his voice as light as if he was having a conversation with the queen. “You aren’t special. There are tens of thousands of racist pricks out there who’ll run to my beck and call as soon as I give the word. Honestly, I’ve never really been sure why you idiots fixate so much on the color of someone’s skin when the real problem doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Jackson made a desperate attempt to swallow the blood that bubbled up from his throat, but like everything else tonight, the effort was for naught.
With a derisive cluck of his tongue, Jaime twisted the knife, sending a fresh wave of agony through Jackson’s body.
“Women.” Jamie said the word as if it tasted bad. “Women are the real problem. You and your people are focused on the wrong thing, but don’t worry. I’ll make sure they see the error of their ways. I’ll set them all straight.”
As Jaime drove the blade the rest of the way into Jackson’s lung, the only sound that slipped past his bloodied lips a wet gurgle.
The pain from his shoulder had dissipated, but he couldn’t remember when the air had gotten so cold. As the chill rose up to greet him, Jackson’s eyelids felt as if they’d been weighted down with lead.
After one more effort to take a breath, he gave up and let the darkness envelope him.
As William Hoult slammed the trunk closed, he glanced over to the man at his side. Jaime’s blue eyes flicked back and forth before he met Will’s questioning glance with a nod. Their footsteps crunched against the gravel of the circular parking lot as they made their way to the front of the car. Wordlessly, Will pried open the passenger side door and took his seat.
After adjusting the rearview mirror, Jaime fastened his seatbelt with a click. When his expectant gaze shifted over to Will, he followed suit. There was a body in the trunk of their car. Not just a body, but a body that Will had helped wrap in a tarp and carry through the woods.
For the first part of Jaime and the other man’s exchange, Will had been hidden just off the walking trail. He’d been out of earshot, and the low light had made it difficult to make out either man’s facial expressions. But based on the way the broad-shouldered man had held himself, Jaime was right. The man wasn’t on their side, and he never had been.
But did that mean that Jaime had to kill him? Will had never seen another person die before, and he supposed he technically still hadn’t. By the time Jaime had beckoned him into the woods, the other man was already dead.
As the car’s engine hummed to life, Will felt Jaime’s stare on the side of his face.
“What’s on your mind, Will?” Jaime asked, his voice light and conversational.
Shaking his head, Will met his new friend’s gaze. “I’m just wondering about that guy, I guess. What did he do?”
With a sour look, Jaime shifted the car into gear. “He was going to rat us out.”
Will sucked in a sharp breath. “He was?”
Jaime nodded, but his eyes were fixed on the road. “He was. He didn’t have the stomach for what we must do, and he was going to tell the cops about us. About both of us. He put you in danger too.”
Angry now, Will cast a reflexive glance to the rear of the car. “A rat, huh? Then I don’t blame you. Rats have to die.”
Jaw clenched, Jaime nodded again. “That’s right. I didn’t want to have to kill him. I tried to talk some sense into him, but he wouldn’t listen. Then, he pulled a gun on me before he tried to take off. I didn’t have a choice. I had to go after him.”
Though Will’s pulse had picked up, he wasn’t nervous because Jaime had just killed a man. He was nervous because they’d come so close to being caught before they could even put their plan into motion.
A few months earlier, Will had come across Jaime in an underground forum where likeminded men could share ideas about their vision for the future of the United States. None of Will’s friends understood the peril their country faced, but Jaime had.
In Jaime, Will had finally found a confidante.
Before long, Will learned that he and Jaime lived less than two hours away from one another. They hadn’t met up in person until a couple weeks ago, but Will already felt like they had become good friends. Unlike the other posters in the online forums, Jaime had a plan of action.
Jaime was determined to make a difference in the world, and in Will’s mind, the only way to make a difference was to follow in Tyler Haldane and Kent Strickland’s footsteps. Fortunately, Jaime agreed.
As he pulled himself from the reverie, Will cast another quick glance to Jaime’s stoic face. “So, do we need to find someone else? Someone to replace that guy?” Will still didn’t know the dead man’s name, but he didn’t care. A snitch was a snitch.
Jaime slowly shook his head. “No. We don’t need to find someone. We can start this ourselves, and then they’ll come to us.”
Even though he still wasn’t sure what exactly Jaime’s plan entailed, Will nodded. “Where do we start, then? Or, well, how do we start?”
The question sounded at least marginally more sophisticated than simply stating that he didn’t know anything about Jaime’s plan. Despite their bond, Jaime had kept the details close to his vest.
Jaime’s blue eyes flicked to Will and then back to the road. As he pursed his lips, he drummed gloved fingers against the steering wheel. “I can trust you, can’t I, Will?”
Will nodded like the answer should have been obvious. “You know you can.”
The slightest hint of a smile crept to Jaime’s face. “You’re right. I did know the answer to that. Okay, Will, I’m going to tell you something that I didn’t even tell our friend back there.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
This was it. After three months, Jaime was finally about to let Will in on his vision. On his action.
“I helped Tyler and Kent plan for the Riverside Mall. I don’t know why they decided to wear those stupid Nazi armbands, but I also know that you know that’s not our mission. There is no ‘master race.’ God created all men equal, but women. Women are the real problem. If men weren’t so wrapped up in their racist crusades, they’d see that women are what’s ruining our society today.”
Nodding, Will shifted in his seat. “How do we make them see that?”
The smile on Jaime’s lips grew wider. “We finish what Tyler and Kent started. They picked the Riverside Mall for a reason. That’s where the sinners and the harlots like to congregate. A mall is like a woman’s drug. They go there to spend the hard-earned money of their husbands, or the money they make in their jobs. Women shouldn’t be out at a place like that, and they shouldn’t be spending a man’s money.”
“They should be at home,” Will finished for him.
Jaime waved an appreciative finger at Will. “That’s right. That’s why Kent and Tyler went there. They knew they would be able to take out plenty of the sinners if they went to a mall. And they did. Everyone there deserved what they got, and everyone who didn’t get what they deserved needs to be punished.”
As the implication dawned on him, Will’s eyes widened. “We have to finish what they started. We have to deal with the people who made it out, don’t we?”
“We do.” Jaime’s voice was cold but determined.
Will scratched the side of his bearded face. “How do we find them, though? Some of them were in the news, but not all of them.”
Jaime nodded his agreement. “You’re right. Computers aren’t exactly my strong suit, but I’m sure we can find someone who knows how to get what we’re after.”
“A hacker,” Jaime confirmed.” The smile returned, though the evil living inside it caused the hair on Will’s arms to raise. “Yes. We find their names, and then we can start our mission.”A portion of Jaime’s smile made its way to Will’s face. It had taken years, but Will had finally found someone who was as convicted as he was.
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