A Taste of... Winter's web

Chapter One

As Nathaniel Arkwell stepped out of the garage and eased the door closed behind himself, he noticed right away that the house was far quieter than usual. Turning the deadbolt back into place, he glanced around the mudroom, taking in the bench, the few pairs of shoes beneath it, and the jackets that hung from hooks on the other side.

The space was immaculate. Even the black chalkboard above the bench had been recently wiped clean. Nathaniel’s daughter, Maddie, had made the board over the summer to help her remember important school functions.

The knack for organization was a trait she’d inherited from him. In all Maddie’s seventeen years of life, Nathaniel could count on one hand the number of times he’d had to remind her to clean her room. More often than not, her bedroom was every bit as tidy as his home office.

He was grateful for the common ground he and Maddie had discovered as she grew older. They maintained an open dialogue about everything from her senior geology class to the navigation of the high school social scene.

However, a knack for cleanliness was virtually the only thing Nathaniel and his college-aged son had in common. In the eleven years since Katrina Arkwell—Nathaniel’s beloved wife and the mother of his children—died, the gap between him and Cameron had only widened. He’d made a valiant effort to bridge the veritable canyon between them, but to no avail.

The thought coaxed a sigh from his lips. Sometimes, he thought Katrina had been the only thing that kept his son tethered to the real world.

With one foot, Nathaniel shoved both shiny black dress shoes beneath the bench before he made his way through the hall and into the spacious kitchen.

A tinge of light was visible through the picture windows at the other end of the room. The splash of color was all that remained of the sun’s rays. For the third night in a row, he hadn’t gotten home from work until after the sun had disappeared below the horizon.

Like the mudroom, the kitchen was spotless. The housecleaning staff had already left for the day, and apparently, no one had been through the house since. If Cameron or Maddie had used the kitchen, there would be evidence of their pit stop. As neat as they were, there would be, at the very least, the faint smell of pizza or tacos. Maddie had recently discovered a love for onions, so Nathaniel was certain he’d still be able to smell her last meal.

No, he already knew that neither of his children were home. He couldn’t stop yet another sigh, this one in relief, at the knowledge. He loved his children, but quiet wasn’t a privilege he often received.

Cameron attended classes at Virginia Commonwealth University and Maddie was a high school senior, but their days off tended to correspond with one another. Tomorrow was a weekday, but neither of them had class, Nathaniel remembered. Maddie sent him a text earlier in the day to ask if she could stay overnight with a friend, and he’d given her his blessing.

And with Cameron? Well, who knew. Nathaniel could only hope he was at a kegger or a bar. Some place conducive to the activities of a normal college kid.

Nathaniel strode through the kitchen and the breakfast area, his stocking feet little more than a whisper of sound. He shrugged off his messenger bag as he headed past the great room and to the base of the staircase. Aside from the usual recessed lights and a floor lamp, no other fixtures had been turned on.

Feeling much older than his forty-four years, he ascended to the open loft of the second floor. From the raised vantage point, he took one last look over the living area and what he could see of the kitchen and breakfast room. Still, there was no movement.

Though he had no reason to think danger awaited him on the second floor of the house, the hairs on the back of his neck rose to attention at the unsettling quiet.

Clenching his jaw, he gave himself a mental shake, hoping to rid himself of the sudden bout of paranoia. The outside of the house was monitored twenty-four-seven via a system of security cameras and motion sensor lights. Inside, the alarm system came with around the clock backup support of one of the city’s best regarded personal security firms.

Well, if there were no children or employees who needed his attention, he might as well take the opportunity to get a head start on some work.

In part because the house was so clean, and in part because he’d just been in his office that afternoon, Nathaniel noticed the envelope as soon as he flicked the switch that brought the floor lamp in the corner to life.

There, in the center of the polished mahogany corner desk set a nondescript white envelope. His first thought was that Maddie had surprised him with one of the charms she’d taught herself to make. But as he drew nearer, he knew the handwriting wasn’t Maddie’s.

The handwriting belonged to his son.

Nathaniel wasn’t convinced that Cameron was a bad kid, but the boy wasodd. He portrayed himself much differently to his classmates and even his sister than he did to his father. To them, Cameron was a normal, twenty-two-year-old undergraduate student.

But to Nathaniel, he was someone else entirely.

Nathaniel was allergic to cats, and after an attempt to bring in a guinea pig for Maddie when she was eight, Nathaniel was finally grateful for the allergy. Porky the guinea pig went missing a couple weeks after Maddie brought him home.

At first, Nathaniel just assumed that his eight-year-old daughter had left the door to the cage unlocked, and Porky made a run for freedom. As far as he’d been concerned at the time, the loss was a normal part of growing up and learning responsibility. He hadn’t been harsh with Maddie when he sat her down to discuss the guinea pig’s absence, but she was still adamant that she’d been diligent in looking after her pet.

The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, but there was still no sign of Porky.

Then, that spring, their longtime housekeeper, Martha, had been digging in the garden to tend to her yearly vegetable patch. The remains were highly decomposed at that point, but Martha pulled Nathaniel aside to show him the body not long after she found it. Nathaniel had never excelled at anatomy or possessed any other medical expertise, but even he could tell that Porky had been ripped to pieces before the poor thing was buried.

A coyote, maybe. Or a cat. He’d assured the woman that Porky had been attacked by a wild animal, nothing more. It was just something that happened.

Porky was the first, but the guinea pig was far from the last.

Eventually, after Martha caught Cameron dissecting a small dog, she put in her two weeks’ notice, and Nathaniel had given her a huge severance bribe to ensure she kept her mouth closed regarding the incident. There had been posters all around the neighborhood for weeks after the incident, each offering a cash reward for an update on the pup’s whereabouts. Each time Nathaniel saw one, he felt physically ill.

Even then, he’d convinced himself that Cameron’s fascination with the inner workings of living creatures was normal. Maybe Cameron would become a doctor or a surgeon, maybe that was why he’d taken to chopping up small animals.

But somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d known.

After Porky, Nathaniel didn’t permit any more pets. He’d caved and gotten Maddie an aquarium a year ago, but he figured fish were a safe enough option.

Leaning his messenger bag against the side of the desk, Nathaniel dropped down to sit in the leather office chair. As he picked up the envelope, a small object shifted inside.

Though he expected a slip of paper to explain the contents, the only item sealed within was a cheap plastic flash drive.

As he dropped the device into his palm, his mouth suddenly felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls. Swallowing against the unpleasant dryness, he reluctantly opened his laptop and pressed a button to bring the screen to life.

There was only one file on the drive. A video.

Nathaniel raked a shaky hand through his hair as he opened the file.

When he spotted the length, his eyes widened. Four hours?

As he gritted his teeth, he leaned in closer to squint at the screen. The camera had been placed high up in a corner of the dim room, either mounted to the wall or atop a shelf. Aside from a twin-sized bed against the far wall, a wooden chair, and an end table, the space was unadorned. He thought he saw the shape of a person tucked beneath the blankets, but the area was cloaked in shadows, and he couldn’t be sure.

He hovered an index finger above the trackpad, clenching and unclenching his jaw as he willed himself to press play.

For the first few moments, he thought the video wasn’t a video at all. He did such a thorough job convincing himself that the image was a still that he almost leapt out of his seat when the shadows along the bed shifted.

A young woman sat upright, her movements hurried as she flung off the dark comforter. Her head snapped from side to side, but the recording had been made with no audio. Though Nathaniel could see that she was speaking, he couldn’t hear anything aside from the uneasy stillness of the empty house around him.

He didn’t recognize the room, didn’t recognize the girl, the furniture, none of it.

Nathaniel took in a sharp breath as the young woman climbed out of bed.

One of her ankles was shackled. Wherever she was, she had been chained to a wall.

Mouth agape, he watched in stunned silence as she made her way around the room to inspect the walls and the floor. Either she didn’t notice the camera, or the device had been hidden.

As Nathaniel caught a glimpse of her panicked expression, he hoped that this was some sort of film project—some artsy representation of human trafficking or the start of a homemade horror movie. As long as everyone involved was consenting, he didn’t care what the video was.

But the more he looked at her terrified countenance, the more and more certain he became that she wasn’t in that room of her own volition.

It was a film project. It had to be.

Cameron rarely discussed his school courses with Nathaniel. He must have enrolled in an elective film class to satisfy a general education requirement.

That’s what this was. He was sure of it.

No matter how convincing his rationalization, Nathaniel couldn’t fight off the tightness in his throat as he watched the blonde woman tuck her knees up to her chin at the foot of the bed.

As much as he wanted to know what else the video might have captured, he couldn’t sit and watch the girl’s frightened movements for four whole hours. After a steadying breath, he tapped the fast-forward button.

She didn’t move from the bed until the half-hour mark, and even then, she was back on the mattress within ten minutes. At the accelerated pace, he could almost trick himself into thinking her movements were no longer frightened or panicked.

The two-hour mark passed, then three, then four, and still no change. Just as he was sure the entire video was merely footage of the young woman in the dim room, the screen flashed to black.

With a sharp intake of breath, Nathaniel tapped the touchpad again to bring the pace back to normal.

When the black screen flipped back to the video of the room, the space was bathed in the bright glow of what Nathaniel assumed were stage lights.

The woman was no longer alone.

There was only enough of the man’s skin visible to confirm that he was Caucasian, but otherwise, he was clad in black from head to toe. Even the eyeholes of his ski mask were covered with a pair of dark sunglasses.

As the man approached his captive huddled on the concrete floor, Nathaniel could hear little over the pounding of his pulse. Bile stung the back of his throat, but he couldn’t so much as will himself to swallow. All his attention, all his energy, everything he had was fixed on the event unfolding on his computer screen.

The stage lights glinted off the tear streaking down her flushed cheeks as the woman scrambled away from the man’s advance.

Her effort was futile. She’d backed into a corner. There was no escape.

As swift as a venomous snake, the man snapped one arm out and clamped a gloved hand around her throat.

She shouted and tried to shove him away, but the attempted rebuff was in vain.

Nathaniel didn’t know what to expect next. He didn’t know who the man was, and despite the close vantage point, he still didn’t recognize the girl.

It’s a film project, he reminded himself.

A film project.

Silver flashed beneath the bright lights as the man produced a butcher knife from behind his back. With the same unnerving quickness, he pressed the blade to her throat.

There was no audio, but Nathaniel could clearly make out the word “please” as she pressed herself farther into the corner. Unperturbed, the man clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, shoved her head back, and dragged the knife across her throat.

“Jesus Christ!” Nathaniel exclaimed, jumping back from the laptop so hard and fast that his chair crashed into the wall.

Blood. So much blood.

As her head lolled and her lifeless blue eyes turned toward the camera, Nathaniel closed his own.

It was a film project. It was a homemade horror movie, and the blonde was a damn good actress. Fake blood could be purchased by the gallons. Prosthetics used to mimic wounds of every size.

Yes.

That was it. That was the only possible explanation.

A film project.

 It had to be.

Chapter Two

Before he pressed the enter key to initiate the video call, Ryan O’Connelly raked a hand through his hair and sighed. For almost an entire year, he’d crept through life in the shadows. The darkness had become his new normal, anonymity his new mode of operation. If he kept his head down and stuck to the shadows, he had a chance to avoid detection by either the Federal Bureau of Investigation or any of the law enforcement agencies that’d be happy to take him down.

He was used to life on the run, but he was used to worrying about one person and one person only. Himself.

But now, he wasn’t alone anymore.

Less than a week after the ordeal with Heidi Presley—a certifiable psychopath who’d left a trail of bodies in her wake as she went around the country to recreate a series of legendary heists—Ryan had received a desperate message from his little sister. That had been nine months before. At the time, Ryan had been able to get his sister and her children to safety. But to what end? So that they could fear that each knock on the door would be the law coming to get them?

They’d lived in fear long enough.

It needed to be over.

He and his sister had grown up in abject poverty in the heart of Chicago, and they’d both been subjected to the violent whims of their uncle. The man was a drunk and a slob, but in all honesty, those were his two most redeeming qualities.

For the time they’d grown up together, he and Lil had been inseparable. He’d watched her back, and she’d watched his. Ryan had thrown himself in their uncle’s line of fire to protect his sister more times than he cared to count, but after the bastard almost killed him when he was just a sophomore in high school, he left. He didn’t tell his friends, didn’t tell his sister, didn’t tell a single soul. At just fifteen years old, he limped out the door, swearing to return when he was able.

When he did return months later, the shitty little apartment was filled with new tenants. Lillian was gone.

It had taken him more than two years to find her again, and when he’d finally found the courage to face her, she’d punched him in the face.

He’d taken the hit like a man, knowing he’d deserved it and more, but when he begged her to go with him, she’d refused. She had been about to turn seventeen, and she claimed that she was in love with a man nine years her senior. He’d keep her safe, she’d told him.

Unlike my brother.

Lillian hadn’t said the words, but he’d felt the weight of them, nonetheless.

At the time, Ryan had taken the refusal as a personal slight. He’d tried, and he convinced himself that he had done all he could.

When she still said no after he’d asked a third time, he did what he had to do.

He left before his uncle could catch on to his presence.

For the second time, he left Lillian without so much as a glimmer of hope.

He’d been scared—scared of his uncle, scared of who Lillian had become while he was gone, scared of being forced back into that lifestyle. He was enough of an adult now that he could admit to the fright.

Now, fifteen years later, he knew she’d done whatever was needed to survive. But back then, her refusal stung like a slap in the face. He hadn’t been at her wedding that took place just a few days after she’d turned eighteen years old. He also hadn’t been there when her husband died a few years later. It wasn’t until she was married a second time and became pregnant that they’d spoken again. She was a few months pregnant at the time, and despite the distance that had come between them, she proudly made him the godfather of her first child, a little girl.

When he got Lillian’s panicked call a week after Heidi Presley’s reign of terror finally ended, he’d been determined not to leave her behind like he had when they were teenagers. Just as Ryan had sworn to himself years ago, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t cast judgment. He just helped her.

The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship—the time when the victim was the most at risk to be killed by their abuser—was when they were leaving. Unlike fifteen years earlier, Ryan was there for the long haul.

Lillian was safe now, and he’d make sure it stayed that way.

Flexing the fingers of one hand, he pulled himself out of the reverie and tapped the enter key. He’d already sent her a text to give her a heads-up for the video call, and she answered before the second ring had finished.

With a slight smile, she pushed the strands of dark hair from her eyes as she offered a quick wave. “Hey, bro. How’s it going?”

He laughed for the first time in what felt like a thousand years. “Bro? What, are we in a frat now?”

Her pale blue eyes were brighter as she laughed, and for a moment, the shadows of weariness didn’t seem so pronounced. “If we were, we’d have to come up with a secret handshake.”

Some of her mirth found its way to his face as he chuckled. “No doubt. Are Evan and Erin in there with you?”

Glancing to somewhere offscreen, she shook her head. “No. They’re watching Pokémon. You were right, by the way. They’re hooked. I bought them each a stuffed Pokémon when we went to the store after school this afternoon. Erin got a little cat, and Evan got a little turtle.” She swung her legs off the edge of the bed and walked off screen. A few seconds later, he heard the soft click of a door closing.

Ryan had to make a conscious effort to keep the strain from his smile when she returned, sitting back down on the bed. Lil, Evan, and Erin had settled in Omaha, Nebraska, and Ryan was clear out in Virginia. So far, his time on the East Coast had been lonely. It didn’t help that he was stalked by a pervasive worry that Lil’s abusive ex, James Lowell, would locate the three of them. At least if Ryan was there, he could do something about it.

Even though Ryan’s so-called work took him all around the globe, he had made a point to try to keep in contact with his sister after she’d given birth to Erin. But with each passing month, he’d felt like a riptide was pulling Lillian farther and farther away from him.

Those last few times he’d traveled to Chicago to visit his niece and nephew, Ryan hadn’t missed the concealer Lillian used to cover the bruises on her arms.

It was a misunderstanding, she’d told him. A one-off. James had been laid off from his long-time position as a welder, and they were stressed. Lil was enrolled in community college classes for the upcoming semester, but they had to put the plans on hold so she could get a full-time job to help support them until James found another position.

Her explanation had been so hopeful and genuine that Ryan believed it. Only months later, long after the late-night conversation, did he realize that the line was the same used by countless other victims of abuse around the world.

Lil’s voice snapped him out of the glum thoughts. “I can’t believe kids are still into that stuff. I mean, Pokémon was popular when we were in school, right?”

He tried to appear thoughtful as he scratched his chin. “I suppose so, yeah. I remember kids trading the cards during lunch hour. I think it missed me by a couple years, though.”

She spread her hands in a show of pensiveness as she took her seat. “It’s never too late.”

“I’ll have to start my own Pokémon collection the next time we’re all together.” Even as he smiled, he didn’t miss the shadow that passed over her face.

“I’m guessing that’s what you wanted to talk about?” Her voice had grown quiet as her blue eyes flicked back and forth between the door and the webcam.

He nodded slowly. “Yeah. It is.”

The shadow of concern had darkened, and she looked like she hadn’t slept for a full forty-eight hours. “You saw that poor girl in the video. You saw her eyes. I know it’s been a long time, but Jesus, Ryan.” She paused to rub her forehead. “We’ve seen someone die before. And…and her eyes. Those were dead eyes. There’s no actor who could fake that.”

Ryan’d been hesitant to bring up the disturbing videos to his sister at first, but he couldn’t get the nagging guilt out of his head and had needed to talk to someone about it. Someone he could trust. Besides, Lil had been in the midst of getting her criminal justice degree when her first husband died, with a goal of becoming a forensic investigator when she graduated. His sister loved crime investigation shows and read CSI novels by the dozens.

Plus, she was right. They’d both seen dead bodies before. Their mother’s drug overdose. Their father’s suicide. How could people do something like that with their children in the house?

At first, Ryan had tried to pretend that he hadn’t seen the video, but after only a couple days, he’d broken down and explained to his sister what he’d found. He hadn’t wanted to burden her with the knowledge, but these days, she was his only friend.

Clenching his jaw, he nodded again. “I know. And I know where I found it. That website, it’s a dumping ground for twisted people like Ted Bundy and that old bastard from out here in Virginia, Douglas Kilroy. It’s where those pricks go to kill time. None of the videos on there are fake. Whoever that girl was, she’s dead. And whoever that guy dressed in black was, he killed her.”

Lil combed the stray strands of hair away from her forehead as she sighed. “Look, I know that plan I came up with is a long shot. I know that the FBI’s been after you for a while now, and taking this thing to them to try to get back in their good graces, or at least to get off their shit list, probably isn’t even possible. I know there’s a real chance that none of this will work out, but…” As her voice cracked, she brushed the tears away from her tired eyes.

He hated how much of Lil’s self-worth that bastard had taken from her. Abusive pricks were all the same like that. They wanted their victims to sever all ties to family and friends, to be completely dependent on them.

If Ryan was there right now, he could give Lil a hug and a bit of reassurance. But he couldn’t be there. He couldn’t risk putting Lil, Evan, and Erin in the FBI’s crosshairs. If the bureau found them, they’d charge Lil with harboring a fugitive or whatever other nonsense violation they could concoct.

As it stood, she was already on shaky legal ground that had little to do with him.

Lillian had been awarded custody of Erin and Evan, but the door was still open for their father to sue for visitation in spite of the abuse charges and restraining orders she’d filed against him. Winning sole custody and completely cutting one parent out of a child’s life was a difficult legal feat, even if the parent in question had been accused of violence.

Ryan ground his teeth together. The stupid law had placed his sister precisely between a rock and a hard place. She’d had little doubt that the bastard would kill her if she stayed put in Chicago. Fleeing and not appearing in court meant facing charges ranging from a custody violation to kidnapping.

With very little choice left and with Ryan’s help, she dropped off the face of the planet and changed all their surnames.

But they still weren’t completely safe.

If the Feds caught Ryan with Lil, then they’d send Evan and Erin back to their asshole father. And while Ryan was more than willing to risk his own safety in the pursuit of a better quality of life, he wasn’t willing to risk the safety of the only family he had left.

Not again.

Never again.

Ryan shook his head. “No, Lil. Don’t say that. You’re right. I mean, I came here to make some money off these rich arseholes, but you’re right. If that video is the kind of twisted stuff they’re into, then someone needs to do something about it. And right now, it seems like I’m the only one who cares enough to do it.”

With a light sniffle, she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. “It’s the bystander effect.”

He ran through his mental dictionary and came up blank. “What’s that?”

She leaned closer to the screen. “When there are a lot of people around during an emergency, there’s a lot lower likelihood that any one of them will do something to help. They just assume the person beside them will jump in, or that someone else will see what’s happening and help. I learned about it in my intro to psych class a few years ago. The more people who are there, the less likely any one of them is to do something.”

Ryan shoved a hand through his hair and heaved a sigh. “Jaysus. Yeah, I guess so. Sure seems like it here.”

A week ago, his contact in a group of Virginia’s wealthy elite—a middle-aged widow whose husband had been a prominent member of the group—had come to him with a rumor she’d heard around their secretive club. According to that rumor, one of the members had a penchant for taking out their ire on a certain subset of the population—prostitutes.

Just like Ted Bundy and the Cleveland Strangler, the man preyed on the most vulnerable members of society.

His contact’s seat in the so-called secret club was largely honorary. Though her deceased husband was a founding member of the group, Mrs. N had never taken much of an interest in their activities. She’d shown up to the events with her husband, but otherwise, she’d steered clear of the other members.

To her credit, Mrs. N kept up a convincing façade of indifference when they were at dinners or other social events. The men and women with whom they met were all the same. Wealthy and powerful. And as a public figure herself, Mrs. N couldn’t risk inviting their wrath.

Ryan cleared his throat and returned his attention to the laptop. “You’re right. Someone needs to do something, and this is the best chance I’ve got at clearing my name with the Feds.”

After a jaunt down to the dark underbelly of the world wide web, Ryan found an entire forum dedicated to the voyeuristic pursuits of stalkers all around the globe. They swapped information, shared photos, helped one another plan, all of it.

And there, he found the video of a blonde woman. Watched in horror as her throat was slit, her blood pooling all around her.

He’d seen firsthand the damage a psychopath could inflict if they were left unchecked. Heidi’s brutality was still fresh in Ryan’s mind, and he wasn’t sure he could cope with the guilt of knowing he could have prevented any more innocent deaths.

It was Lil’s turn to sigh. “Why does it have to be you, though? Why did this Mrs. N woman have to tell you about it? Shouldn’t she have been the one to go to the cops?”

He bit back a groan. “She’s a state senator. She’s got an image to uphold, and apparently, even though she’s got a little bit of a conscience, she doesn’t have enough of one to risk her career and her cushy life. You want my guess about why she told me and not someone else in that group?”

Lil nodded.

Ryan shifted in his seat. “Because she personally knows all those other people, and she knows better than to try to talk to any of them. She wasn’t about to tell any of them that she thought one of their ranks was kidnapping and murdering prostitutes at the edge of town. Wasn’t about to tell them that her prostitute sister was scared because some of the women had been disappearing.”

Lillian’s expression darkened. “She probably doesn’t even want them to know that she has a sister, does she? My god, those people are all the same, aren’t they?”

Ryan finally let out a weary breath. “They are. And apparently, a lifelong thief has more of a conscience than any of those arseholes. Even the ones that actually have a conscience to speak of.”

With a quiet snort, Lil shook her head. “Apparently. You’re going to do it, then? You’re going to the FBI?”

If the fear in Mrs. N’s eyes hadn’t been so prominent when she told him about the rumored disappearances, Ryan wouldn’t have bothered to try to research the claim. Sometimes, he wished he’d listened to the devil on his shoulder, and not the angel.

After all, he’d connected with Mrs. N and her elite friends to steal from them, bit by bit. Not turn into some do-gooder willing to risk his hide.

But here he was.

Even as his stomach dropped, he nodded. “Yeah. Soon, real soon.”

“How do you know that they don’t already know about it?”

He gestured to the laptop. “Because that website and all those videos are still there. If the Feds were on to them, it would have all disappeared. And that ‘rumor’ wouldn’t still be floating around. My guess? If the Feds were on to whoever made that video, all these shit birds would’ve run for the hills by now. Maybe none of ‘em are murderers aside from the one, but none of their hands are clean.”

Lifelong thief or not, Ryan was confident there were fewer skeletons in his figurative closet than any one of the men or women with whom he kept company.

Unlike him, they had the power to bury their secrets.

“Hey.” Though weary, Lil offered him a wide smile. “Do you want to talk to Erin and Evan? I’m sure they’d be okay with pausing Pokémon to come talk to their favorite uncle.”

His smile was genuine this time. “Of course.”

With a quiet rustle of fabric, Lil pushed herself off the edge of the bed and made her way out of frame. Her voice was muffled, but he could still hear her as she addressed Erin and Evan. “Hey, guys, Uncle Ryan is on video chat. Do you want to talk to him?”

“Yeah!” The two spoke almost simultaneously and with so much joy, Ryan felt a fist close around his heart. It was hard to keep the smile in place as all sorts of emotions burned through his sinuses, threatening to leak from his eyes.

This was his family. His only family.

And he needed to protect them. Needed to do what was right.

“Okay, I’m going to the bathroom. You guys go in there and say hello. I’ll be there in a second.”

A flicker of movement at the edge of the screen was followed shortly by a blur as eight-year-old Erin hopped on the bed. Evan, two years her junior, followed his sister’s lead, waving at the camera as he settled in to sit.

Ryan donned the most convincing smile he could manage. Even though—to the best of Lil’s knowledge—James had never laid a hand on Evan or Erin, the two kids had already been through more in their lives than most people Ryan’s age. As diligent as Lil had been to hide her suffering at her husband’s hands, kids caught on to more than adults realized.

Neither of them questioned the reason for their father’s absence. Even without explicitly asking why, Ryan suspected he knew the answer. They’d both known they weren’t safe with their father, and they trusted their mother.

“Hey, guys.” Ryan returned his nephew’s wave. “How are you? Today was your short day at school, wasn’t it?”

Erin smiled as she nodded. With her dark hair and light blue eyes, she was a carbon copy of Lil. “Yeah, it was. Mom picked us up, and we went to the store with her. She even let us get candy. We might get to go to the zoo this weekend too.”

Evan’s blue eyes widened as he glanced at the camera. “Do you think you’ll be here to go with us, Uncle Ryan? Mom said it’s the second biggest zoo in the whole country.”

His heart squeezed again. “I wish I could, but I’ll be busy working.” Technically, the statement wasn’t false. He’d come to Virginia because of the opportunity to scam some wealthy people who had more money than sense. So far, the endeavor had proved lucrative, though he’d started to wonder how much he would have to pay to turn a profit out here.

As Erin looked to the doorway and then back, a flicker of sadness flitted across her face. “Do you know when you’ll be coming back?”

Swallowing against the sudden lump in his throat, Ryan shook his head. “No, I’m not sure. I’ve got something I…” He had to pause for fear his voice would waver. “I still have something I have to do out here. There are some people I need to help.”

“Mom’s worried about you,” Evan said. He glanced to his sister, and Erin nodded. “I told her you’d be okay, but she still cries a lot. I don’t think she wants us to know about it.”

Though Ryan could remain stone-faced in front of hardened criminals and grizzled law enforcement veterans, the struggle to keep the despondency off his face in front of his niece and nephew was arduous.

He swallowed in an effort to displace the lump that had turned into a stone. “I’ll be okay. I’ll be back before you know it, I promise.”

He’d managed to speak with so much confidence, he almost convinced himself.

But no matter the conviction in his voice, it felt like each word was a lie.

* * *

Three full days passed before Ryan summoned up the fortitude to undertake the short trip to the Richmond FBI office.

After a little digging to refresh his memory on those federal agents involved in the Presley heists almost a year earlier, he’d been relieved to learn that Agent Winter Black—the same Agent Black who had helped him escape Heidi’s clutches and shimmy into an FBI van to undo an elaborate collar bomb—still operated out of the bureau’s Richmond field office.

Though he’d been too panicked to take note at the time, Ryan got the feeling that Agent Winter Black was one of the good guys. Not just because she operated on the right side of the law, but her demeanor on that distant day told him that her interest wasn’t in serving herself and her own career.

She’d had a chip on her shoulder at the time, no doubt about it. But no matter her dark past, she struck him as a person who sought justice, not just an easy win.

Each step he’d taken to the front doors of the building had been painstaking. When his foot hit the ground, he wondered if he would be better off cutting his losses, taking his rich targets for all he could manage, and getting himself, his sister, and his niece and nephew to a country with lax extradition laws. Evan and Erin were young. They could still learn Spanish if they relocated to Panama.

Maybe, but he’d scoffed aloud at the notion, and Lillian had been reticent as well. Evan, Erin, and Lillian had been through enough. Ryan didn’t need to heap any more onto what they already had to contend with on a day to day basis.

Like a sudden trip to Panama or the Ukraine, any thoughts he might have had to drop off the face of the planet for the alleged benefit of his remaining family were ridiculous. Despite his checkered past, Ryan knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if he abandoned his sister and her kids at such a pivotal point in their lives. Even from a prison cell, he’d be of more use to them than he would in Eastern Europe or South America.

That left him with one option.

Make a deal with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He’d help them put away a potential serial killer—not to mention all the perverts and creeps who had commented on the photos and videos—and they would offer him leniency. And as a cherry on top, he’d make sure they knew about Kent Strickland and Tyler Haldane’s manifesto. They probably already had a printed version locked up somewhere in the building, but it never hurt to be thorough. To use whatever you had.

The decision to work with the FBI was a gamble, but Ryan had never been one to cower when the odds shifted out of his favor.

The light creak of a door’s hinges jerked him back to reality. He’d been about to drift off to sleep in the middle of an FBI interrogation room.

Scrubbing both hands over his face, he glanced at the two-way mirrored glass and then to the door.

As it swung inward, his pulse rushed in his ears. His hands were clammy, but his mouth was as dry as an Ancient Egyptian tomb.

This had to work.

They had to help him.

One-click Winter's Web today. Just click HERE!

Winter's Web by Mary Stone

SUBSCRIBE TODAY TO GET A FREE BOOK!