autumn's Chaos

Autumn Trent Series: Book Five

Guilt is a powerful motivator...

Less than twenty-four hours after yet another near-death experience, forensic and criminal psychologist Dr. Autumn Trent should be resting and recovering, not back at work. But she has no choice. Her best friend, Special Agent Winter Black, is missing.

So is Winter’s baby brother, Justin...a brutal serial killer.

To make matters worse, Autumn feels responsible for Winter’s disappearance. Plagued by guilt and haunted by the memory of her little brother before he was kidnapped and groomed by The Preacher, Autumn knows that Winter would do anything for Justin. She should have stopped Winter from visiting her brother in the maximum-security treatment program for the criminally insane so soon after his capture.

Could Winter have helped him escape? Or is she his next victim?

Now, Autumn must put aside her guilt to focus on the only thing that matters. They have to find Winter...before it’s too late.

Autumn’s Chaos, the bone-chilling fifth book in Mary Stone’s Autumn Trent Series, is a breakneck race for survival, where forgiveness is deadly and timing is everything.

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read an excerpt

Chapter One

Special Agent Winter Black flipped her credentials back into her jacket pocket and nodded to the stony-faced guard standing at the entrance of Virginia State Hospital. There were a few perks and privileges to being an FBI agent. Visiting her brother after standard visitation hours had quickly become an important one.

If asked the reason for her late arrival, she could simply claim the visit pertained to a case. Information gathering. Fed stuff. Though the explanation lacked detail, none of those statements would be lies. Not exactly. And Winter was seldom interrogated by the staff regardless, which was a blessing because each of these visits sent her anxiety levels shooting through the roof.

Winter paused inside the lobby to inhale and exhale in a slow, steady rhythm, battling the desolate wave that assailed her each time she entered these premises. The battle was ongoing.

She wasn’t crossing the threshold of an ordinary hospital. The sheer volume of deviant minds locked away in this edifice created an almost palpable cloud of malevolence.

In contrast to the eroded bricks that lent a russet-infused warmth to the structure’s outer walls, the hospital’s interior was colorless and sterile. Every hallway was a monotony of white concrete blocks. Every room a lifeless, soul-stealing enclosure.

The disparity was unnerving.

Though Winter understood that the neutral color scheme was chosen to prevent overstimulation of the criminally insane patients held in the state’s only Adult Maximum Security Treatment Program, the net effect was disorienting. Stepping inside the front doors was like entering a ghost world where time no longer mattered nor existed.

Was that her little brother’s experience each morning upon waking within these walls? Did Justin find himself in an undefinable vacuum where time lost all meaning…no today, no tomorrow, and no escape?

A doctor in a white coat squeaked along the tile floor as he hurried past, jolting Winter from her brooding. Great, she’d allowed her mind to lead her down the pity path yet again. Standing in the lobby and feeling sorry for her brother wasn’t helping anyone.

She exhaled one last time and headed through yet another set of security doors, tossing her keys into the tray for the harried looking guard to x-ray. They were the only thing she brought inside with her. No gun and not even an ink pen. She felt exposed without her weapon, but she understood the necessary steps it took to get inside these halls.

“You working alone tonight?” she asked the guard. There were normally at least two guards at this checkpoint. Maybe the other was on a break?

The grim shake of his head told Winter otherwise. “The entire place is short-staffed. Guards…nurses…orderlies…every damn place. You sure you want to go inside? Might not be the best night for visiting.”

Did she want to visit Justin?

No, she didn’t.

And that immediate answer brought on a fresh wave of guilt. It was that guilt that forced her forward. “I won’t stay long but thanks for the warning.”

The guard shrugged and had her sign the book. She did so with a flourish she didn’t feel before facing the maximum-security hallway. Patients were screaming and pounding on doors while nurses and other staff rushed around, their faces tight masks.

This was where her brother lived.

No.

This is where Justin belonged.

 He may very well never leave. You can love him, but you cannot pity him. Not after the terrible crimes he committed.

Justin was a serial killer, plain and simple. He’d murdered his victims with gory, ruthless abandon, following in the unrepentant footsteps of the man who had raised him…Douglas Kilroy, The Preacher.

Kilroy showcased his nontraditional views of “family” when he’d kidnapped six-year-old Justin from Winter’s childhood home. Before disappearing with her brother, The Preacher murdered their parents and left Winter for dead.

Life as she knew it had altered irrevocably when she was just thirteen years old. Her brother’s life had mutated when he was less than half that age.

Winter often wondered if Justin would have been better off had Kilroy killed him alongside their parents rather than sucking him into a depraved, demented abyss. Instead, Kilroy had raised her once sweet and innocent younger sibling as his protégé, molding him like clay into a fresh devil to unleash on the next generation.

Justin Black had sat in the kiln, endured the fire, and emerged from the flame hardened.

Brutal.

A serial killer created by a serial killer.

Thanks to Kilroy, her brother grew up believing his calling was to carry on The Preacher’s brutal legacy of torture and slaughter. Justin had already made considerable strides in his efforts to prove himself as a worthy disciple before the FBI apprehended him and locked him away. Due to his questionable competency to stand trial for reasons of mental illness, he’d ended up in a state mental hospital instead of prison.

For now.

There was help—hope, even—for Justin at Virginia State Hospital. The building bustled with psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and nurses, all trained to find the humanity lying dormant beneath layers of trauma and violence.

Here, Justin had access to proper medication, education, and numerous forms of therapy…talk, group, art, music. He had the opportunity to heal.

He could get better. Nothing is impossible.

No one else seemed to believe recovery for Justin was probable, though. Even Winter clung to hope by a very fragile thread. But she refused to release that strand, feeble as it was.

Justin was still alive. Where there was life, there was hope.

The elevator doors slid open as she approached, exposing a paunchy midsection first before widening to reveal the passenger as Victor Goren. Despite his substantial girth, the public defender moved quickly, speeding between the steel doors as soon as space allowed.

Winter studied Goren’s expression as he emerged. Her brother’s lawyer appeared frazzled. His wispy hair was messier than usual, jutting from his scalp in all different directions, and sweat dotted his forehead and cheeks like fine beads.

Her internal alarms flared.

Had Goren just finished a visit with Justin? If so, his harried demeanor didn’t bode well.

“Hello, Mr. Goren. How are you this evening?”

She hated the feigned nonchalance in her voice. Like she and the lawyer were run-of-the-mill acquaintances, stopping for a chat in a normal hospital after checking up on a mutual friend.

Victor met her gaze and offered a tenuous smile. “I’m good, Agent Black. Fine. Your brother, however,” he growled low in his throat, “I couldn’t say the same for him.”

“What’s wrong with Justin?” She blurted the words without thinking, panic cloaking her mind and sabotaging any attempts at finesse.

Victor dabbed at his forehead with his purple paisley silk tie. “Wrong isn’t the word I’d use, Agent Black. More along the lines of distracted. Very distracted. I’m not sure how much he was able to take in from our meeting this evening. He seemed to be…somewhere else.”

Winter digested the statement, her brain formulating and spewing a number of possible explanations for Justin’s behavior. “Maybe meetings this late in the evening are a mistake? Concentrating at this hour might be too difficult for him. He seems much more lucid during the day.”

She hadn’t intended the statement as a criticism, but Victor apparently received it as such. He dropped his tie and reared back, the extra flesh beneath his chin wobbling with indignation. “And yet, here you are? The time of day doesn’t seem to deter you in the least.”

Good job, Winter, insulting the one man who’s trying to keep your brother out of a prison cell.

She held up an apologetic hand. “I’m sorry, Victor. That came out wrong. I know you’re doing your best given the…given Justin’s condition. I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into helping my brother. I really do.”

To his credit, Victor seemed to forgive as swiftly as he’d taken umbrage. “You’re a tough woman, Agent Black. I imagine it’s very difficult to walk in your shoes, and I applaud you for attempting to balance family matters with your law enforcement duties.”

Winter’s throat constricted, but she retained composure. “Thank you. That’s incredibly kind.”

And wrong. So wrong. I’m not balancing shit. It’s more like failing in every aspect of my life. I’m worrying and disappointing the people I care most ab

“Have a nice evening, Agent Black. Give my regards to Justin.”

Goren retreated with noticeable haste. Politeness and civility aside, Winter knew the lawyer couldn’t wait to escape the time-warp hellhole that was Virginia State Hospital.

Not that she blamed him. Once she finished her visit with Justin, she planned to haul butt out of this dismal place too.

“I will. You have a nice evening as well.”

It was a meaningless tiding offered more from obligation than anything else, but it was the best Winter could do. The monumental effort of playacting like an unaffected individual in a world full of madness was wearing her down, slowly but surely.

Pretending. Everyone was pretending because that was easier.

No, not only easier…expected.

Over the past months, Winter had learned the hard way that most people preferred to avoid ugly, inconvenient realities. And when it came to frequenting a maximum-security hospital to visit your baby brother, who’d happened to commit so many murders that no one could pinpoint the exact number? Few realities got uglier or more inconvenient than that.

Instead, most of Winter’s friends and acquaintances preferred that she gloss over her personal nightmare for the sake of their own peace of mind.

Yes, my brother’s a killer. Should we pick up Chinese for dinner?

No, he’s not remorseful. Not at all. Did you catch last night’s game?

I’ll never be happy or normal or okay because someone I can’t stop loving is sick. Demented. Lost. Does this sweater make me look fat?

Sometimes, Winter wanted to drive deep into the woods and scream at the top of her lungs. But what would that change? She’d simply be venting her own craziness out into the world with only the trees as witnesses.

Meanwhile, Justin would still be Justin.

Slouching against the elevator wall, she closed her eyes and attempted to gather her strength. Steel her mind. Brace herself.

That task was proving more difficult with each and every trip into this godforsaken building. Brother or not, Justin Black was taking a toll on her psyche.

Winter had barely spent an ounce of energy focusing on the new case the Special Agent in Charge had assigned her. As a federal agent in the Richmond Field Office, she was by no means basking in free time. Eventually, SAC Max Osbourne would notice her lagging attention and call her out. The Violent Crimes Division couldn’t afford slackers.

The sad truth was, Winter struggled to care about the case at all.

A money-hungry woman named Camilla had dated a man who Winter guessed was more apt to follow his dick than his brains, assuming he ever possessed any of the latter. The happy couple had wed in Vegas, the hall of fame for train-wreck vows.

In less than a month, the husband was dead, and his widow was suspected of burning down their home to cover up his murder. Oh, and coincidentally, the newlywed had taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy on the man right before his “accidental” death.

That case would basically solve itself as soon as they found Camilla. And if or when that day arrived, Winter would deserve none of the credit.

Deep down, she realized her apathy was a problem. She should care about the FBI job she’d worked so hard to achieve. But even though the shame of being a piece of shit slacker had settled into her chest like cement, she found the motivation to dive into her FBI duties as elusive as ever.

Lucky girl that she was, the screw-up train didn’t stop there.

Her relationship with Special Agent Noah Dalton also rested on shaky, sometimes turbulent ground. Not that she’d ever considered herself a romantic expert, but lately, Winter was proving to be a particularly craptastic girlfriend.

Their main source of contention? Justin.

The same went for her friendship with Dr. Autumn Trent. Autumn was a gifted criminal and forensic psychologist who’d teamed up with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit on numerous cases. More than that, she was Winter’s best friend.

At Winter’s urging, Autumn had been tasked with determining Justin’s competency to stand trial for all his heinous crimes. An admitted gray area—having a close friend evaluate her brother—that had taken a few dark turns.

They didn’t butt heads on much.

Except for Justin.

Well, Sherlock, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed a pattern here…

All of Winter’s turmoil seemed to be connected with direct lines to her mentally unstable little brother. Bold, brazen lines that flashed bright red like a neon warning.

The problem was, whenever Winter looked at Justin, she saw a six-year-old boy with silky black hair and blue eyes wearing SpongeBob pajamas, who just wanted to cuddle with his big sis.

Try as she might, she just couldn’t make that image disappear.

The elevator dinged, and Winter exited onto Justin’s floor, drawing the immediate attention of the male nurse on duty. Dale Miller had seen her enough times to know who she was and why she’d shown up at such an hour.

“Follow me, Agent Black.” The order was filled with more than a little annoyance as he took off down the hall at a fast clip.

Winter trailed behind him and kept her mouth shut. Except for the moment when he passed her brother’s door.

“Um…where are we going?”

Dale didn’t break stride. “He got moved this morning.”

Winter frowned at Dale’s back. “Why?”

The agitated nurse threw his hands in the air. “Why does anything happen around this shit place?”

Winter was sorrier than ever for coming here this late. None of the hospital employees appreciated after-hour visits, but some were better at hiding their resentment than others.

Dale fell more into the “what you see is what you get” category, and Winter didn’t mind the attitude. She could handle blatant irritation.

On the other hand, one more fake smile might trigger a profuse stream of vomit.

When they reached Justin’s room, Dale moved aside, leaving the observation window clear. Mustering her courage, Winter stepped forward, tapped on the glass, and peeked inside.

Within the small enclosure, her brother paced from wall to wall, eating up the floor with rapid steps that struck her as aggressive for reasons she couldn’t formulate. Justin’s mouth moved just as quickly, muttering what she guessed was an intense torrent of thought.

Winter’s heart sank over the clear signs of her brother’s distress. Victor’s assessment had been spot-on. Justin’s body was here, but his mind was elsewhere. And there was no way to know which kind of reality he’d traveled to this evening.

Maybe you should follow your own advice and come back later. Meetings this late in the day are a mistake.

She’d already taken a step back when Justin’s head whipped up. Blazing blue eyes locked onto her own, and he actually jumped in surprise, as though he couldn’t believe she’d come.

Winter froze in her tracks. Her baby brother had sensed her presence just as she was preparing to leave and abandon him yet again.

Her actions on that last evening before Justin had been stolen came flooding back, swamping Winter with everlasting shame. While she could shoulder the limitless remorse—she deserved that burden and worse—what she could never accept were the consequences of her thoughtless behavior on that fateful night.

Sweet, pudgy-faced Justin had only wanted to snuggle with his older sister. Like any other six-year-old, he’d sought comfort and warmth from a person dear to him.

A person he’d trusted.

The horrible truth was that Winter had been too concerned about her sleepover plans that evening to spare him any attention. Too distracted by important stuff like the upcoming movie marathon. Boy talk. Popcorn.

Justin would never forget that she’d left him, and neither would she. The horror of his present-day reality was her fault.

Her. Fault.

She ignored the guilt hammering in her chest, offering him a grin and a wave. Justin focused in on her, the startled look he’d first displayed narrowing into something calculating for a split-second before a wide, toothy smile emerged.

She didn’t have time to register his expression completely before he was gesturing her to come in.

A sudden stab of pain pulsed through her temples, nearly stopping her in her tracks. Ignoring the discomfort, Winter retained her smile even as the shot of agony hit and faded.

Now was no time for one of her headaches.

Or blackouts.

Winter hesitated outside the door, wanting to ensure the episode had passed before she risked entering. She sniffed and touched the area under her nose to make sure it hadn’t started to bleed.

Yet another remnant of The Preacher’s brutal legacy.

When Douglas Kilroy disappeared with her brother, he’d assumed Winter was dead. Instead of killing her, though, The Preacher had gifted her with a severe brain injury. The emergency surgery that followed left Winter forever changed. As a result, objects or areas in her visual field would sometimes glow red, a silent alert to turn her attention toward the light.

More powerful and considerably more debilitating were the blinding headaches, most of which caused a loss of consciousness. The fainting spells were always preceded by a nosebleed.

While blacked out, Winter experienced visions related to current events in her life. Sometimes, the imagery coincided so well with a real-time issue that she was able to uncover advantageous pieces of information. Those types of visions had helped her solve many a case for the FBI.

Other times, the visions produced jumbled reels of footage that were impossible to decode. Her “special ability” felt like both a blessing and a curse in turn, leading to unpredictable, stress-inducing pivots that she had grown to resent.

“Oh, Jesus Christ. Straddling the fence, are we?” Dale stalked past her and jabbed the key into the lock with an angry twist of his hand. He glanced at Winter, shedding disgust and sarcasm in spades. “He’s still batshit crazy if that’s what you were wondering.”

Winter disregarded the man’s mood altogether. Anyone who worked in this building day in, day out was entitled to a few bouts of crankiness.

“Thank you.” She stepped into Justin’s room with a firm resolve to make the best of this visit. That was all she could do. Garner as much good from the time with her brother as possible.

“Nighttime meds in ten minutes. Don’t give me any crap tonight.”

Dale barked the order over his shoulder and started to close the door.

Surprise had Winter reaching for the heavy metal. “You’re leaving?” She very nearly added “me alone with him” but managed to keep the words from escaping.

The nurse whirled on her. “In case you haven’t noticed, this place is a shitstorm of understaffing. You don’t feel comfortable alone, then you’ll need to reschedule. I’ll check through the window every five minutes, but it’s the best I can do.”

Winter glanced at her brother. Honest to god tears welled in his eyes, and the very tip of his nose had turned pink.

She forced a smile. “I’m happy to stay. Thank you.”

The nurse slammed the door without another word, the key grating in the lock, echoing through the room.

Winter flinched but didn’t take offense. She assumed Justin’s interactions with the staff were often deplorable and that he’d more than likely earned the harsh treatment. She turned to face him straight on, bracing at the ice-cold chill that coasted down her spine as their eyes met.

He was staring at her in a way that…

Fresh bolts of pain spiked her temples, nearly bending her over with their intensity.

“Grandpa had a hard-on for you, big sister. I do too.”

Her stomach lurched as the vile words sifted into her head. He’d said them just that morning, turning feral right before her eyes not even twenty-four hours ago.

Yet here she stood in a private room alone with him.

Am I crazy too? Or maybe I’ve become suicidal without realizing it?

But even as she second-guessed herself, she knew that neither explanation fit.

She was just a sister who had lost too much and had a list of regrets a mile long. The thought of adding more regrets to that list was unbearable.

“Dale’s an asshole.” Justin aimed a one-finger salute at the door.

Ignoring her throbbing temples, Winter tilted her head. She was skeptical but attempted to keep an open mind. “And there isn’t a reason he’s like that?”

Justin studied her as though he were preparing a rebuttal in court. “Dale is an asshole because Dale is an asshole. He threatens to quit every damn day. And he’s always a jerk to the other nurses. They fight all the time out there.”

Winter didn’t doubt that the staff of Virginia State Hospital was on edge. Earlier that day, the team had caught the mysterious killer who’d terrorized the premises, but not before he’d killed two nurses.

The perpetrator had turned out to be Albert Rice, an orderly of the same hospital his victims had worked for. Hiding in plain sight throughout the FBI’s frantic search.

Albert’s sister had committed suicide while under the psychiatric care of Dr. Philip Baldwin. Albert blamed the doctor for her death and plotted revenge, waiting until Baldwin was hired as Virginia State Hospital’s medical director to spring his trap. After accepting a job as an orderly, Albert strangled two hospital employees and tried to frame Baldwin for the murders.

The grief-stricken brother’s attempt to ruin Dr. Baldwin’s life had resulted in chaos. Amidst that mayhem, they’d come close to losing Autumn. Too close.

“Spacin’ out on me there, Sis. Catching Rice was hard on you, huh?” Justin’s blue eyes met Winter’s identical ones, and for a moment, she believed he might actually care about her mental state.

Her mind drifted, and once again, images of Autumn tied to a chair with a plastic bag clinging to her face like a second skin blazed through Winter’s psyche. If they’d arrived even a minute later…

Too close.

“Wow. You’re crazy distracted. You don’t have to be here if you—”

Because he looked so hurt, Winter grabbed Justin’s hand and squeezed. “I want to be here. I do. How is your head feeling after,” she licked her lips, “after—”

“After your jerk ass boyfriend shoved me into a concrete wall?” Justin ripped his hand away.

“Justin. You grabbed…you grabbed his…” Winter didn’t want to finish the sentence or relive the moment.

“I grabbed his stupid dick. So what? He can’t take a little joke? Has to hurt people half his size to make himself feel better?” Justin wiped a hand across his eyes and slumped, shifting moods in an instant. “It was just a cut. Didn’t even need stitches. Maybe I deserved it.”

“No one deserves physical violence.” Winter was aware that she’d once again fallen into an invisible trap…consoling the penitent serial killer she doubted was truly sorry for his actions. Not yet. Maybe never.

A harsh truth Winter had only just acknowledged earlier that day.

Justin shrugged. “I deserve it for what I said to you. I’m sorry. I don’t understand why my brain goes all screwy sometimes. I hate it.”

Winter’s headache had eased to the point that she was sure the episode was over. She allowed herself to relax and sank into the room’s only hard plastic chair. Justin followed suit and plopped on his cot like a little boy, causing an instantaneous warmth to blanket her heart.

Just two sibs hanging out. This is kind of like that. This is almost what life would have been like if…

“Tell me one of your favorite memories from when we were kids. Anything.” She grinned at him, interested in his genuine response. Assuming he gave her one. He might not remember much from those earlier days, but surely, he’d stored a few moments somewhere deep down inside, in a heart she prayed he still possessed.

Justin appeared suspicious, angling his body away from her as though she’d requested an internal organ. In a way, Winter supposed she had.

“I don’t remember a lot. I was younger than you.” Justin stared out the barred window before turning back to her with a grin. “But I guess I sometimes think about when you’d take me ‘fishing.’” He air quoted the word. “Took me a while to figure that one out.”

Winter laughed, the sound rising from her belly like a volcano of happiness. Memories assailed her of Justin, maybe four at the time, sitting beside her and carefully lowering his stick into the deep, rain-filled ditch in front of their home.

“You were so patient. Determined you were gonna catch a big one before the sun went down.” Her shoulders shook as she sputtered out the words.

“You told me there were fish in that damn water. I was four. A little too young to call bullshit, but I figured it out later.” Justin snickered, unable to keep a straight face. The levity softened his expression, returning an almost childlike quality to his handsome features.

Winter’s breath caught in her throat. She wished she could freeze the moment. Stay in it forever. She could see him in there, the piece of her baby brother that was alive and well. Buried deep under layers of trauma and brainwashing.

It wasn’t fair.

If she could figure out a way to bring Kilroy back to life just to kill him again, and again, and again, she’d perform necromancy in a heartbeat. The man would never pay enough for what he’d stolen from them.

Never.

“How about jet fighter battles?” Justin lowered his voice to a cockpit-worthy drone. “Approaching hostiles. Prepare to fire. Over.”

“Roger that,” Winter replied with equally sober emphasis before a second round of chuckles overtook them both. “We were going to save the galaxy.”

Justin snorted. “Sitting at our kitchen table with the chairs turned backward, flying through the cosmos. You always let me lead the missions, though,” he mused, nodding his approval at the past gesture.

Winter grinned. “You were much better equipped to save the world.” She grew somber as a gut-punch of melancholy brought their present reality into focus. The stark contrast between then and now was undeniable. She hated it.

“Guess that kinda flew out the window, huh?” Justin’s thoughts seemed to match hers perfectly.

Too perfect. He’s doing it again. He’s saying what you want to hear…mimicking your mood. Manipulating, manipulating, manipulating…

“Was every day awful? With him? With Kilroy? Were you ever even…did you ever feel happy? Have good days?” She wished she hadn’t asked as soon as the words left her mouth.

Justin stiffened with the same indignant hostility she’d witnessed earlier that morning, his eyes flaming with a similar hellish fire. “Grandpa taught me important lessons. He opened my eyes to the way things are. Life isn’t about being ‘happy.’ That’s the mistake you all make because humans are selfish idiots.”

Winter hated that Justin considered the evil bastard to be his grandfather. Kilroy was Justin’s second cousin at best.

“I’m sorry, Justin. I didn’t mean—”

“I know exactly what you meant.” Sneering, he pulled his knees to his chest. “You couldn’t possibly understand. Grandpa warned me almost no one would. He said that was okay, though, that it meant he was on the right track. He was a hero. Brave.”

The ache in Winter’s chest throbbed as she stared at him, realizing he’d transitioned yet again. That he was still in Kilroy’s thrall somehow.

“But the crimes he committed…surely you can see how wrong they were. Brutal and heartless. He could have ‘spread his message’ in a way that didn’t hurt, or torture, or kill innocent human beings.” She was desperate for just one small sign that her brother could separate himself from Kilroy’s depravity.

Justin’s eyes narrowed, reminding her of the hateful monster he’d become when Noah had interrupted their visit. He didn’t speak. Instead, he studied her with unnerving intent.

Winter leaned forward, desperate to make him understand. “Don’t you see how he changed you? Made you his puppet? How the actions you took were wrong too?”

She realized she was pushing too hard, but she couldn’t help it. He was drifting away in front of her eyes again, and she was powerless to reel him back in.

Her brother’s nostrils flared. She caught the flex of his jaw before he schooled his features into an indifferent, if not quite pleasant, mask.

A second later, he crumpled, as if a heavy blanket of guilt fell upon his body and weighed him down.

“I do know the things that I did weren’t…right. I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of that.”

His shoulders slumped. His tone was penitent.

But Winter wasn’t buying it. Every movement, every tiny change to Justin’s facial expressions occurred with perfectly executed calculation. His moods didn’t flow naturally, changing from one to the next in response to his shifting emotions.

Justin simply morphed, in the blink of an eye, into whatever role he predicted was most advantageous to him at any given time.

She’d experienced enough training on body language through the course of her career to notice these microscopic modifications and see them for what they truly were. Justin was lying to her. Sailing through hoops as he seamlessly adjusted to the version of himself he’d perceived would best garner her sympathy.

She could push. Call his bluff and prod until her brother’s own emotions shattered his self-control. Prove to herself once again that he was always just a flash away from the feral, demented animal he’d become this morning.

But what was the point? She knew the truth and understood that her brother may, or may not, ever change. That the odds were in favor of the latter. For now, what was the harm in preserving the moment? In reminiscing about ditch fishing and kitchen-chair-jet-fighter flying?

“What are your dreams, Justin? You have to imagine a life outside of this hospital room…” Winter slouched against the back of her chair, exhausted from the never-ending “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma that presented itself each and every time she interacted with her brother.

He raised an eyebrow, staring at her as though she must have also lost her mind. Not even a second passed before a warm smile spread across his face. “Everyone always wants to talk about my past. No one has ever asked me about my dreams…my future. Not that my dreams matter much now.”

A tear—that she prayed was real—slid down his cheek.

Winter persisted, intent on dragging a genuine response from her brother’s mouth. She didn’t need nor want the act. She wanted him. “But if the situation was different. If you were a free man right now. Today.”

He met her gaze, his eyes exuding an evil that she’d only ever seen in one other person. Pain rippled, merciless and sharp, through her head as she imagined that these weren’t Justin’s eyes at all, but Kilroy’s.

Kilroy alive and well…and sitting right in front of her.

The telltale trickle of warm liquid dripped from her nose to her lip. Justin jumped off the cot, appearing alarmed as she grabbed the ever-present tissue from her pocket and pressed it to her nose.

The door swung open, and Dale Miller entered unannounced. “What’s going on here?” he practically roared.

Winter swiveled to assure him that she was okay, knowing what the situation must look like. But the nurse had already made his assumptions.

“On your cot.” Dale pointed to the small bed, his face an angry mask. “Now. Sit.”

Justin instantly obeyed, and Dale made a swift grab for a gauze roll sitting on the medicine cart he’d been pushing.

“Dale—” Another burst of pain skewered her skull, and Winter broke off with a moan.

She needed to inform Dale that this wasn’t Justin’s fault. If only her head would stop pounding like a watermelon whacked with a sledgehammer.

“Always this one with the troublemaking. Hurts his own damn sister. Probably the only person that cares whether or not he’s even alive.” Dale’s low mutter was all too audible. “I’m not even supposed to be here right now.”

“Dale—” The piercing pain in her temples intensified as she glanced at her brother, who was watching the scene play out with naked interest.

“I’m working a godforsaken double shift because this hospital can’t keep a full staff with or without nurses dropping dead left and right. No one wants to work in this psycho-filled hellhole. Me included.” Dale stomped toward her, wielding a white square. Gauze.

The pain was pulsating now. Intense, steady beats of unforgiving agony. “No,” she mumbled. “This wasn’t his fault. You’re mistaken.”

She attempted to peer Justin’s way again, pain slamming into her brain as their gazes locked.

“Don’t do that. Don’t defend a criminal, even if he’s your brother. He’s a sick little nutjob, and the sooner you…” Dale’s voice faded away as Winter’s vision blurred with the debilitating strokes of her headache.

Through the pain-streaked fog, she glimpsed her brother’s form rise from his cot, grasping something in his hand that she couldn’t make out…couldn’t focus in on. He approached them, raising the object he held overhead.

Look out!

Winter grabbed Dale’s hand. Desperate to warn him, but her tongue was too clumsy, her coordination slow and muddled by the haze of pain.

In the next breath, Justin pounced, slamming his weapon into the back of Dale’s neck. Without a sound, the nurse collapsed into Winter’s lap.

Pinned to the chair by his weight, her hand instinctively reached for the gun holstered snug against her body.

Not there.

Panic was an icy knife to her chest as she remembered that weapons weren’t welcome inside the walls of Virginia State Hospital. Her gun was locked in her car.

Useless.

Just like she was right now.

Pushing through the blinding, skull-crushing pain, Winter struggled to wiggle out from beneath the dead weight of Dale’s body. Relentless throbs kept perfect time with the frantic beating of her heart.

You cannot pass out now. You cannot pass out now.

Even as she ordered herself to stay awake, her vision grayed around the edges.

Her last conscious image was of a shadowy Justin, grinning…grinning so wide that for a wild, nightmare moment, she feared that yawning mouth would devour her in a single bite.

When his arm swung a second time, the motion was nothing more than a blur. Something cold and sharp pricked Winter’s skin.

After that, the pain mercifully faded until Winter felt nothing at all.

Chapter Two

Autumn Trent screamed and thrashed, desperate to escape the plastic bag that imprisoned her head. Nearby, her mother stood as still as a black-and-white statue next to her father, who glowed red as he glared at Autumn.

His angry shout was deafening.

“Take off that bag! Do you hear me? Take off the stupid bag and stop causing such a fuss! What’s wrong with you? Why do you insist on breaking the rules? Why are you always trying to get attention?”

Sarah peeked out from behind their mother, gleaming yellow and bright. Too bright. The intensity of the glare burned her eyes, and the fire spread through Autumn’s veins until she was convinced she’d been lit like a candle.

“Stop competing with your sister! She’s dead! You’ve gone too far this time!”

Autumn choked on plastic and braced for her father’s cruel hands. He’d rip the bag off her head. Hurt her. But she’d be able to breathe again. She’d be able to inhale…maybe escape.

Only he didn’t even take a step toward her. He bellowed and turned deeper shades of red until he morphed into a giant drop of blood, splashing against the ground and drowning her mother and sister in a massive tidal wave.

Autumn couldn’t help. Couldn’t scream. Couldn’t do anything but watch as the crimson currents swept Sarah’s yellow glow farther and farther away in the crimson currents until her sister was just a dim, fading light.

“Mom?”

The bag smothered Autumn’s cry. It didn’t matter. Her mother wasn’t there, had never been alive at all except as a statue.

She’d always been a statue.

There was no one to help Autumn. This bag was her life, her death, her eternity. Punishment for being a bad little girl who caused a fuss. She had it coming.

Suddenly, strong arms picked her up, throwing her body across broad shoulders.

“You killed my sister.”

Albert Rice was hauling her away, his muscled grip unbreakable. Philip Baldwin lay behind them on the leaf-covered ground, his eyes open but vacant. Dead. Albert had ended his life. Just as he’d end hers very soon.

Philip’s blank stare shifted to hers. Not a muscle of his body twitched except for his lips. “You’re going in the closet. That’s where bad little girls go. What did you do to earn yourself this punishment, Dr. Trent?”

Autumn sobbed, her ankles and wrists bound together, the bag melding to her skin. Her lungs burned.

No air.

Can’t breathe.

Can’t. Breathe.

Albert threw her into the hatch of a station wagon. “You killed your sister. I’m going to make it right.”

His green eyes turned reptilian as his body mutated.

Scales broke through his skin, gradually coating the man until he was no longer human, but instead a crocodilian beast. Giant fangs protruded from his slimy, blood-covered snout.

Autumn begged for mercy, but her words were silenced. Trapped by the plastic clinging to her face like a second skin.

“I hope you can swim, Pippi.”

The scene shifted, and they were in the ocean. Giant waves tossed her like she was an abandoned soda bottle. She needed to swim, but her arms and legs were too tightly bound to tread water. She gasped to breathe, but the bag wouldn’t allow it.

No fair. Why didn’t anyone ever fight fair in this world?

The backdrop morphed again. Rough hands yanked her from the water. Winter, Noah, and Aiden stood above her, their expressions grim. Winter knelt and tapped at Autumn’s cheek, which had hardened like clay. The bag had sealed to her face…had become her face.

“She’s plastic now. Like a doll.” Winter sneered as Noah and Aiden approached, disgust dripping from their eyes.

“We don’t have time for this, Agents. This isn’t a daycare. Stop playing with toys.” Aiden barked at the others, turning his back on her without another word.

Noah shook his head and knelt beside Winter. “Why did you kill your sister, Dr. Trent? Why are you always making such a fuss?”

The pair rolled her body off the wooden dock she lay on, and the sea swallowed her whole, pulling her down, down, down…but she wasn’t alone. Jaws chomped somewhere close…too close.

“I hope you can swim, Pippi.”

Beautiful woodland pictures in elaborate frames with cracked glass floated and sank all around her.

They calmed her. Mesmerizing.

“Isn’t this better, Pippi? Would you rather die in a forest all alone? Slow and painful and cruel? You have friends here.” Albert swam past her, his gargantuan tail leaving a powerful wake that caused the pictures to bob uncontrolled.

A body dropped upside down into the water, mere inches from her face. Evelyn Walker, the nurse who’d plunged into Autumn’s elevator car. Still just as dead and unblinking, though she was waterlogged and rotting. “You shit yourself after you die.” The stiff lips cackled. “Isn’t that funny? You’re dead, but you can still shit!”

The woman sank into the inky blue depths, but her voice carried from below. “Why did you kill your sister, Dr. Trent? Why are you always making such a fuss?”

Autumn’s screams resumed, but no one was coming. She was a plastic doll now, drowning in the ocean. They couldn’t hear her scr—

Autumn shot up straight in her bed, her heart threatening to take over her entire chest. Her tiny Pomeranian mix was on her with immediate licks to the chin, presumably trying to rid his beloved owner of the terror that had found her. While Toad’s excessive underbite may not have been the most comforting sight for anyone else to wake up to, she loved her dog’s silly little face.

Peach, her ginger tabby cat, remained a safe distance away on the dresser top, surveying her owner’s plight with disdain. Her feline stare conveyed a clear message. Have you gone insane?

Autumn pressed a clammy hand to her damp forehead. Her digital alarm clock glowed 6:11 in the morning. Technically, she still had another nineteen minutes of sleep to indulge in, but the idea of falling right back into that nightmare was enough to keep her awake.

It’s been less than a day. Not even twenty-four hours. You went through a lot. Your psyche is processing. That’s all that was. Your brain processing random bits of information.

The clinical assessment helped Autumn’s pulse return to a normal rate. Albert Rice had attempted to smother her to death with a plastic bag less than twenty-four hours ago. Only a few days before that, Evelyn Walker’s cold, dead body dropped through the ceiling of her elevator car along with the nurse’s leaking postmortem defecation.

Autumn collapsed back onto the pillow and threw a hand over her eyes, making Toad yelp in surprise. Was she seriously going back to work today? The doctors had told her to rest for seventy-two hours, but here she was.

Maybe she was insane.

Except, work was her sanctuary. Or at least, it had been, up until she’d started teaming up with the FBI. She supposed the danger level was a bit too high now to qualify her current job as a refuge. But even with the diminished sense of safety, Autumn enjoyed immersing herself in her new duties.

There was an excitement unique to this job that she craved. And though she’d never deny the assignments came with great risk, they were equally balanced with substantial reward.

She just needed to figure out how to stop ending up at the epicenter of every dangerous situation her team encountered. To start, perhaps she could avoid cabins where a psychopath had trapped multiple hostages. Or be certain to decline any and all invites to speed-dating events since history proved those could go horribly wrong. And jumping out of helicopters into the effing Atlantic Ocean?

Not her best decision ever. Although, in her defense, the alternative to the helicopter escapade had been letting what she’d thought was a baby drown. She gave herself a pass for that one.

However, absolutely no more unplanned visits to the prime suspect in a double homicide case…even if she believed the suspect to be innocent.

She was almost positive she could manage that.

After a hot shower and a fresh change of clothes, Autumn felt like a revamped version of herself. She’d opted for a sleek, black turtleneck to hide the angry red line on her neck, a parting gift from Albert Rice, and the plastic bag he’d used to strangle her. No other visible signs of yesterday’s disturbance, thank goodness.

She was ready to save the world once again.

But first, Toad needed a short walk to release some of his own pent-up burdens.

When the walk was finished and both pets were settled with bowls of fresh food and water, Autumn took a deep breath and checked the time. Seven o’clock was just now approaching, giving her plenty of time to pay an early morning visit to a patient she knew was waiting for her.

Her past two attempts to meet with Justin Black had been thwarted by unforeseen circumstances, like elevator-spelunking corpses and murderous orderlies. Not her fault. Still, Autumn harbored a pang of deep guilt for abandoning a patient with severe abandonment issues. Going to see him this morning would ease some of the self-reproach eating away at her mind.

Aside from all of that, she had a great deal of work left to do with Justin. His case was complicated, his traumas deep-set.

Autumn drove her Camry toward Virginia State Hospital, determined to attack Justin’s demons and assist his recovery in every way she could. She parked in the front lot, checked the rearview mirror to make sure the turtleneck was doing its job of concealing her wounds, and exited her vehicle.

Partway across the parking lot, her long strides faltered, slowing until she stopped altogether. The gargantuan brick building loomed before her. Though always large and foreboding, the facility seemed to have acquired a more sinister air after the Albert Rice case.

A shiver skimmed down her spine.

Nothing good happens in this place.

She checked herself as she started walking again, rejecting the thought outright. Good could happen, and good would happen, because she wasn’t giving up. Not on Justin’s case or any others.

After showing her badge at the front door and passing the various security checks, Autumn headed toward the patient wing.

The wild din of rage hit her the second she walked inside.

Autumn stopped mid-stride, her hand flying to her throat as she took in the scene.

What on earth?

Chaos. Philip Baldwin’s tightly run ship had devolved into a madhouse, for lack of a better term.

Apparently, the hospital was not doing so well after the strangled nurse debacle.

Some patients were shouting. Others were shrieking. Maybe there were intelligible sentences in the midst of it all, but when combined, the mass of voices resembled a crazed lion’s roar. Impossible to understand…and unsettling at best.

The staff might not have been screaming like the patients, but their faces conveyed competitive levels of hysteria.

“Watch out!”

Autumn leapt back just in time to avoid wheel marks on her toes when a medical cart flew by at breakneck speed. The red-faced nurse who’d issued the warning raced the cart down the hall, narrowly missing a collision with yet another frantic nurse.

Everywhere Autumn looked, staff members hurried from room to room with agitated haste, the stress evident on their harried faces.

Employees darted around, doling out meds and calming nerves, and there simply wasn’t enough staff to keep pace with the demand. Orderlies rushed to assist with sedation shots where needed, and phones seemed to be ringing from every direction and wing of the hospital.

As Autumn absorbed the chaos, she clutched her bag to her chest like a shield.

She was really going to have to rethink that whole “work as a sanctuary” thing.

After double-checking the hall for speeding objects, Autumn hurried to the nurses’ station and attempted a genuine smile. “Just here to sign in for a meeting with Justin Black.”

She recognized the nurse, Joan Singleton. They’d interacted on several occasions, and a familiar face amidst the din flooded Autumn with instant relief.

Joan nudged a clipboard toward her, attempting her own smile but not quite getting there.

“What exactly is going on? I’ve never seen this place so…” Autumn struggled to find an accurate description.

“Crazy? Ha. Well. Goes with the territory, I suppose.” Joan shoved stray strands of brown hair back from her face. “We had one of our nurses, Dale Miller, up and quit. Just walked off the damn job last night without saying a word to anyone. Takes a special asshole to pull that kind of stunt.”

Autumn scribbled her signature and twirled the pen in a circle, indicating the entire facility. “Maybe it’s on account of the lovely atmosphere.”

“He’s half to blame for this ‘atmosphere.’ We were already short-staffed, and he walks out.” Joan collapsed onto her rolling desk chair. “Some of the patients on his rounds didn’t even get their evening dosage. But I’m sure that fact is evident.”

“Had he mentioned quitting to anyone?” Autumn rubbed her temples, which had started to throb with the beginnings of a headache.

The noise in this place.

“He’d been grumbling all evening about being forced to work a double. Several employees claim he threatened to walk out the door. Repeatedly. But that’s par for the course here. No one thought he was serious.” Joan leaned closer to the counter. “And they think Dale took a med cart with him.”

Autumn balked. “An entire med cart?”

Joan lifted a shoulder. “I think it’s more likely that he hid the damn thing out of sheer meanness. Dale’s always been an ass, but he wasn’t a druggie.”

The nurse had to raise her voice in order to be heard over the incessant pounding that joined the caterwauling of Virginia State Hospital’s discontented residents. It took Autumn a moment to identify the source of the new commotion.

The doors. The patients were pummeling their doors.

Amidst the banging, Autumn made out irate demands for breakfast and aggrieved cries for freedom. The hospital was clearly in lockdown mode until some semblance of order straightened out the mayhem.

“Is there any way I can help?” Autumn’s compassion and sense of duty overrode any discomfort from the unabated racket.

Visible relief slid across Joan’s features. “We do have some temp staff coming in to assist, but what we need is for the temporary medical director to arrive. If you could stay until then?”

Autumn was aware that Virginia State Hospital’s actual medical director was currently in a bed at the medical hospital nearby, recovering from several broken ribs and a severe concussion. Dr. Philip Baldwin had been reinstated as the official medical director of this facility upon proof of his innocence involving the recent strangulations, but he would have to spend some time healing before he could return to full duty.

She knew Philip was peeved by the delay. He wasn’t used to being the patient. And even after Albert Rice had severely injured and nearly killed him, recuperating from his wounds wasn’t an appealing way for the doctor to spend his passing hours.

Given her training and current ongoing work with an inpatient at Virginia State, Autumn enjoyed medical privileges at the hospital. Her professional credentials were more than sufficient to grant her the authority to make certain calls regarding patient treatment that the nurses and orderlies could not. She couldn’t prescribe medication, but she could do just about everything else.

This was one of those instances where Autumn’s drive to pursue multiple degrees paid off. In addition to her undergrad degree, Autumn had earned a Ph.D. in forensic psychology with a minor in criminal justice and been awarded a Juris Doctorate in addition.

A special ability that she kept much quieter was an after-effect from a childhood injury. Her father, an abusive drunk, had gifted her with a massive brain injury, the result of a blunt force trauma from the table corner she’d struck when he’d hit her. She’d only been ten years old.

After the subsequent brain surgery required to save her young life, Autumn’s reality was forever changed. She’d somehow developed the ability to read another human’s thoughts and emotions with just a simple touch of her hand.

Overwhelming as the currents of information were, they’d proven useful in her chosen career path. She’d allowed herself to reframe the unrequested “superpower,” eventually growing to appreciate the assistance it provided.

Especially when working with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit out of the Richmond, Virginia, Field Office. Having a sixth sense of sorts often proved an amazing asset in the types of cases she’d encountered with the team.

Autumn believed her calling and duty was to help the troubled minds of this world. And regardless of the incredibly recent events connected to the Albert Rice case, she was primed and ready for action.

Why should today be any different than all the others?

“What can I do first, Joan?” She was one-hundred-percent decided and resigned to this task.

“Well, the most important feat we have to tackle is getting medications ready.” Joan’s words dripped with fatigue and exasperation. “The problem being some of them were on that missing cart. We’re having issues knowing exactly who took what without Dale’s chart. Many of the patients detest taking the pills to begin with, so we can’t just ask them and trust they’ll give an honest answer.”

“Got it. I’ll search for the cart.” Autumn raised her hand to give Joan’s arm a reassuring pat, opted against the contact, and took off down the halls.

She decided to start with the third floor—Justin’s floor—and work her way back down. If Dale walked out based on anger and exhaustion, he surely hadn’t dragged the bulky metal contraption too far.

There was no way to prevent the shudder that rippled through her body as she approached the elevators, which were fully functioning and ready to go. Everything appeared back to normal, as if Evelyn’s corpse had never plunged through the ceiling of a Virginia State Hospital elevator car.

Autumn eyed the stairs before stepping into the car and hitting the button. She refused to let fear make decisions for her. Instead, she clasped her hands together, channeling inner calm and composure as the doors slid shut.

The car shuddered as it started to ascend. Autumn flinched, her gaze inadvertently drawn to the ceiling. Nothing to see there. No liquid feces dripping between the tiles. No dead nurse toppling through.

She let out a shaky breath. The memory of Evelyn Walker’s dead body dropping through the ceiling was still a vivid memory, one she wasn’t likely to forget any time soon.

But she would work through the aftershocks. Their Richter scale magnitude would decline over time. That was how the human brain operated, and she was grateful for the fact.

She was more grateful to step out of the damn elevator.

Autumn made her way down the hall, pausing to check maintenance closets, linen closets, bathrooms, and any other space large enough to contain a med cart. The noise level on Justin’s floor was every bit as loud as it’d been on the first floor.

Ignoring the inmates licking the glass of their observational windows was second nature. The vulgar comments being shouted at her as she passed melded together in one mass of depraved white noise.

“The redhead doc is back!”

“My dick’s ready and waiting!”

“I’m gonna bite those perky tits right off your body, Doc!”

She hesitated outside Justin Black’s room. It was empty.

An orderly passed, and Autumn grabbed his arm. “Where’s Justin Black?”

The red-faced man nodded toward the end of the hall. “Last door on the right. Got moved yesterday.”

She was confused. “Why?”

“Hell if I know.”

Shrugging, she headed toward the door the man had indicated and peered inside the window. She exhaled a sigh of relief. Justin lay still on his bed, his body turned toward the wall, and a blanket pulled over his head. She couldn’t blame him.

The noise throughout the establishment boomed like thunder.

Autumn finished her inspection of the floor without any sign of the missing cart. The minutes were ticking by, and she decided to waste no time tackling the next floor down.

As the dreaded elevators came into view once again, her phone buzzed. An acute sense of anxiety awakened in her stomach.

Just nerves. One day, her elevator fears would fade.

She grabbed the device from her bag and swiped to view a text from Noah.

Have you seen Winter? I don’t think she came home last night.

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