Winter black series box set
Books 1 - 3
Winter's Mourn: Thirteen years ago, Winter Black came home to find her parents brutally murdered and her little brother gone. Taken by a serial killer called The Preacher. Now a rookie FBI agent assigned to her first murder case, Winter has returned to the small Virginia town where she grew up. What happens when bones found by a hunter lead to a secret burial ground containing the remains of children? Will they find her brother’s bones in the makeshift graveyard?
Winter's Curse: When a pair of masterminds hack their bloody way onto the list of the most notorious US heists, Winter's office nemesis believes she holds the key to taking down the murderous criminals hungry for fame. All Winter wants is to solve this case so she can focus on tracking down The Preacher. But what at first seems like a standalone bank robbery becomes something much darker...
Winter's Redemption: Winter has spent her entire life preparing for taking down the sadistic killer who slaughtered her family. But when she’s taken off the case, that just might be the end of her FBI career. She doesn’t care. She won’t stop until she ends the man responsible for destroying her family. But the Preacher is going for his next victim. Not just another victim. He's after her...
A masterfully conceived psychological thriller series reminiscent of Lisa Jackson, Harlan Coben, and Karin Slaughter, the Winter Black Series will keep readers turning the pages—and watching the window—long past midnight.
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read an excerpt
Pain was like a living thing as yet another contraction tore through the girl.
It was a whisper. It was a prayer.
It was ignored by the observer standing on the other side of the cage.
The burning between her legs intensified as she bore down, her young body seeming to know what to do. The pain faded, but it would be back, she knew. And it was.
How had it come to this?
A stupid fight with her parents. She’d been so cocky, so sure that she was a professional at life and knew it all. She was a grown-up. Heck, she’d even had sex with Scotty Jernigan, the captain of the football team.
At sixteen, she’d thought she had it all figured out.
“I hate you!”
Those were the last words she’d flung at the man and woman who’d brought her into the world as she stomped from the house, intent on doing things her own way.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to the memory of their faces. And she was. So very, very sorry.
She wanted to say more, make them hear her pleas from the ether, and maybe by some miracle they would find their way to her now. Because she needed them. Not just physically but in every other possible way. But before she could ask them for their forgiveness, pain sank its fangs into her again.
She bore down, pushed, gritting her teeth.
In the movies, there was a nurse counting to ten. There was a husband lovingly holding up one leg. There was a doctor ready to catch, ready to know what to do if things went wrong.
And things were going very, very wrong.
“Help me,” she said after the contraction abated.
The observer didn’t react. Didn’t speak a word. Didn’t move.
The burning grew even stronger, and she looked down, sure that her private parts had burst into flames. But instead of a red glow…there was a head, dark hair swirling wetly over the crown.
Bursting into tears, she touched her child for the very first time.
Even as her belly had grown bigger and bigger over the months, it still hadn’t felt real. The sickness. The exhaustion. The cravings. The movements under her skin.
It felt real now.
The vice contracted around her belly again, turning her attention away from the miracle of what was happening and back to the pain. The terrible, awful, body-splitting pain.
She pushed again and again, screaming through the contraction, and the pressure increased. Swelled. Blossomed.
Then it was over.
Between her legs lay the bloody, squirming child.
Reaching for it with shaky hands, she smacked its bottom, swept her finger in its little mouth. Her addiction to hospital TV dramas was paying off.
There was a cry. Soft at first. Then it grew stronger as the baby’s anger and confusion at her new reality increased.
“Shhh…” the girl soothed, sticking a finger in the baby’s mouth. She smiled as the little one began to suck. “That’s right, sweet girl. I’ll take care of…ohhh…”
The pain this time was a surprise. Wasn’t that part supposed to be over? She had to stop herself from holding the baby too tight as she screamed through gritted teeth.
The baby wailed again, and she laid it down beside her.
Was there another child? Twins? Was that even possible?
But when she looked down between her legs, she saw that the only thing she was delivering was blood. A river of it.
She looked at the observer, her panic kicking in again. “Please help,” she cried as agony and fear stabbed through her.
As she watched the key slide into the lock of the cage, heard the click of metal on metal as the mechanism opened, hope swept through her. Help was coming, after all.
“Perfect,” the observer whispered, voice the very picture of awe. Gloved hands lifted her baby girl while shrewd eyes took in every inch. “Simply perfect.”
The girl was weak now, but that didn’t stop her from trying to reach for her child. “Give her to me.”
Cold eyes turned her way, making her shiver.
As if that single shiver had triggered an avalanche of them, she began to tremble violently.
So much blood. So much pain.
Would it ever end?
She looked at the observer again, clutched at the long black coat only inches from where she lay. “Help. Me.” She swallowed back the tears. “Please.”
As she watched, the observer laid the child down. Scissors appeared, as well as two plastic clamps, and she watched in fascination as gloved hands quickly took care of cutting the umbilical cord, effectively separating her from the baby. She nearly wept as the bond between them slipped away.
Those same hands then went to work wrapping her tiny baby in a blanket, placing a tiny pacifier in its mouth. All the time, there were the whispers of “perfect” and “I did it.” Other mumbles she couldn’t comprehend.
When she cried out again, the knife of pain growing even sharper, the observer turned to her.
“I won’t let you suffer.” Something was pulled from the pocket of the long coat the observer wore, a flash of metal that she immediately identified.
Even as the word echoed in her mind, she looked at her baby one last time, then closed her eyes as the cold steel pressed to the back of her head.
A click. Then nothing.
The observer was right. She didn’t feel anything anymore.
Winter’s hand trembled violently before her fingers went nerveless, and they abruptly loosened their death grip on the fragile piece of evidence in her hand. The picture she’d been holding fluttered to the floor, landing face-up. A little boy’s face stared up at her from the grungy, dark green shag hotel carpeting. Innocence and fear combined in his wide-eyed expression, captured sometime after his parents had been murdered, and he’d been taken by their killer.
She couldn’t catch her breath.
Justin. Her baby brother.
Winter sank down on the bed behind her, the mattress sagging under her weight, trying to control her frantic wheezing. She bent at the waist, resting her forehead on her knees.
In, out, she told herself. Slow. Calm. Breathe in. Breathe out.
She needed to clear her mind. Focus.
But, right then, all she could do was mourn.
She waited until the black dots flickering at the edges of her vision cleared, and her panicked wheezing evened out into a calmer rhythm. She wasn’t thirteen years old anymore. She wasn’t a child. She was an FBI agent. Steeling her spine, she bent over and picked up the photograph again.
The photo itself appeared to be old. It was a Polaroid, and while Polaroid still made cameras and film, the colors in the photo looked faded. Yellowed. There was no inscription on the white strip at the bottom of the picture, but there was a tiny puncture at the top. Had it been pinned up on a bulletin board?
That thought almost made her lose it again. Did The Preacher take pictures of all his victims? Put them up on a glory wall so he could reminisce about the brutal murders he’d committed over the last twenty or thirty years?
In the photo, her brother’s six-year-old face was pale, and she could make out a smudge of dirt on one cheek. Justin’s blue eyes were wide and confused. He was wearing the same SpongeBob pajamas her mother had dressed him in after his bath before Winter left the house to spend the night with a friend.
“Night, Winter.” She could almost hear his voice. “Thleep tight, don’t let the bed bugth bite.” He’d been missing both front teeth the last time she’d seen him, and she’d teased him with the mercilessness of a bratty older sister about that lisp.
The punch of grief came again, hitting her chest dead center with the impact of a body armor-piercing slug. Winter squeezed her eyes shut against the familiar pain. It didn’t help. This pain was brutal.
She remembered the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. Justin had thrown his arms around her waist and squeezed tight. She’d been impatient, ready to leave for her best friend Sam’s house. They’d planned a long Friday night of binge-watching gory Halloween movies on the Syfy channel, stuffing themselves on greasy, extra-buttery microwave popcorn, and talking about boys.
So, instead of squeezing him extra hard, she’d just extricated herself from his pudgy little arms, dropped a quick kiss on silky dark hair still damp from his bath, and hollered, “G’night, twerp,” on her way out the door.
Another punch of pain. It had been the last hug she’d ever get from her only sibling, and she regretted her teenaged callousness.
So many times, she wished she would have stayed home. If she had, though, she’d be dead. Butchered like her parents in their beds. Or taken, like her brother.
Counselors had told her countless times later, in their soothing, calm voices, that her absence from the house that night hadn’t changed anything. A stranger, a psychopath, a serial killer, had targeted her family for some reason she couldn’t fathom, and Winter’s presence wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome.
She was fortunate to be alive, she was told over and over. She’d nodded and let them think they’d convinced her. She knew it was classic survivor’s guilt, but she’d never forgiven herself for walking out the front door that night.
Even though she’d come home, she’d still been too late.
She and Samantha had argued over a stupid teenage boy whose name she’d only recently been able to remember. She’d left Sam’s house, walking down the windy, leaf-littered sidewalk at two o’clock in the morning. Come into the house, eerily quiet in the darkest part of the night. Seen her parent’s door ajar, dim light spilling out into the hallway. Caught one horrible glimpse of the charnel house that was their bedroom. Seen the red crosses on the walls. The Jude 14:15 in blood. Then she was hit hard enough in the head from behind to cause a short coma and a lingering traumatic brain injury.
Years later, Winter still blamed herself for not saving them.
As if the memory of her head injury was enough to snap her out of her paralyzing grief, the details of the dingy hotel room around her burst from fuzzy gray to sharp, technicolor clarity. She hadn’t been left helpless after that night. She’d come out of her coma with some new skills and a focus: catching the killer who’d destroyed her family.
Her mind coldly clear now, she studied the picture of Justin with deliberate detachment. With laser focus, she memorized the trees in the background—their types, sizes, what they might look like a decade later. She pictured the angle of the camera, adjusted an approximate time of day based on the shadows cast by the trees, and cataloged every minute detail of the picture until it was ingrained in her mind.
If she ever came across the place where this picture was taken, she’d recognize it.
* * *
Didn’t she realize she’d left her curtains open?
Women these days had no shame.
I didn’t even need the pinhole camera I’d set up earlier behind that godawful-ugly painting above the TV. From out here in the parking lot, I was able to see the expressions that chased across her face. Fear. Anger.
And through the binoculars I’d brought along, sadness.
Oh, those tears. They made my heart go pitty-pat in a way it hadn’t for a long, long time. I wanted to lap them up. Lick that salty wetness right off her smooth, pale cheek. Savor the innocence those tears represented. The camera probably caught those silvery tear tracks in HD. I’d be saving that video for later. Later, when I could savor it properly.
The skinny little black-haired girl with the spooky blue eyes sure had grown up pretty. Pretty as a picture, just like her momma. And now she was FBI. Seemed fitting.
Chuckling, I scraped a fingernail against my front tooth absently as I watched her study the gift I’d left just for her.
I was officially in retirement now. Had been for years. But watching that girl sitting up there in her lonely hotel room, I was tempted to pay her a visit. Bring it full circle.
Not now. Not yet.
When another hotel room door swung open, I dropped the binocs in my lap. A tall, broad-shouldered man with short dark hair stepped out, scanning the mostly empty lot. The FBI girl’s partner. Now definitely wasn’t the time.
Watching the FBI man walk toward Winter’s door, I could see his knock get her attention, and she jumped up, her eyes wide before she bent over quickly like she was hiding something. Probably stuffed the picture under the mattress. I chuckled again, pleased, and my truck gave its usual growl and rattle of exhaust as I cranked the ignition.
That’s right, girlie. Keep it a secret. Just between us. A family thing, so to speak.
I’d been watching her over the years, kept tabs so often that she surely felt like family at this point. The FBI man looked out the window, into the parking lot for a moment, before pulling the curtains closed.
I wasn’t worried. No reason to be. They weren’t here in Harrisonburg for me.
Would probably fornicate, the sinners. That would make me angry. Very angry.
That wouldn’t do. Not yet.
I looked down at the scene playing out on my cell phone, watched the FBI man talk to the blue-eyed girlie for a moment, and wished I’d taken the time to wire the room for sound. Maybe another day.
I shifted the truck into reverse, and the transmission clunked as I backed slowly out of the parking slot.
Tonight wasn’t right. I had lots of things to do before I could meet my blue-eyed girlie again.
Lots of things to do.
* * *
Noah felt an itch at the back of his neck and closing the curtains hadn’t done a thing to scratch it. He’d talked to soldiers, MPs, veteran cops over the years, and the itch was a real thing, not to be ignored. It meant something.
Just now, though, he wasn’t sure what.
He studied Winter from his spot at the little table in the corner of the room. She looked paler than usual to him, and her eyes—such a cool shade of blue, deep and dark—were shadowed underneath, looking almost bruised. Stressed, he thought.
And why shouldn’t she be? She was on her first FBI murder case, which just happened to be in Harrisonburg, the little Virginia town where her family had been killed a bunch of years ago. Investigating some old bones found in the woods that just might belong to her missing brother.
“You sure nothing’s wrong, aside from the obvious?”
Winter nodded, a piece of that long black hair of hers coming loose from its prim knot at the back of her neck. She tucked it behind one ear and folded her arms, staring at him pointedly. It was plain to him she didn’t want him in her room, but he didn’t mind. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“You know, I’d like to consider us friends.”
She rolled her eyes at him, and he didn’t miss the flash of…something that crossed her face at his words. Guilt?
“Sure, Dalton. We’ve been friends since I took you down in front of the Director of the FBI Training Academy.”
I gave her a good-natured snort. “Darlin’, you’re remembering it all wrong. I took you down.”
“My elbow in your sternum said otherwise.”
“Fine, I’ll be a gentleman and let you think you won.” He needed to steer this conversation back on track. “Anyway, friends talk to each other.”
Noah took out a well-worn deck of cards from his pocket and unwound the rubber band that held them together. He cut the deck with practiced ease, shuffling both stacks into one so quickly, they were a whispering blur. He’d found people were more willing to talk when they didn’t think you were paying them your full attention. But it didn’t take any attention at all to shuffle a deck of cards.
“We can talk to each other in the morning, Dalton,” Winter huffed, exasperated. “We’re meeting for a run in less than seven hours, remember?”
“What do you think of Officer Benton?” Noah cut the deck again, ignoring her rhetorical question.
“I think he’s a douchebag. Is that what you came over here to ask me?”
“Poker?” he offered, riffling the cards for effect, keeping his face carefully neutral. “Doesn’t have to be strip, unless you insist.”
She just shook her head, sighed, and climbed up on the bed, propping pillows behind her. She grabbed the remote off the nightstand and flicked on the postage-sized TV across the small room. The soothing drone of a nightly news meteorologist’s voice rolled out on low volume as he gave the weather report for the next day. The late-September warm stretch would continue. Partly sunny, high of seventy-five. Good day to visit an old crime scene.
“I knew Benton,” she finally said. “In middle school.”
“Small town. Figures you’d know some people. Was he a douchebag back then?”
She barked out a laugh. “Weren’t all teenaged boys?”
“I wasn’t. My mama told me so.”
Winter clamped her hands over her face and sagged down into the pillows. “Why was I assigned to this case? Did you talk Max into putting me on this with you?”
He didn’t bat an eyelash at her change of subject. Noah knew it had been bothering her. It was out of character for any Special Agent in Charge to put a rookie and a relative rookie on a case together, and she’d have to be dumb not to realize that. Winter wasn’t dumb.
“Miguel Vasquez was going to take it, but his appendix exploded, and he’ll be down for a couple weeks. I was his backup. Everyone else is tied up with that credible terrorist threat that came in last week.”
Her hands dropped to her lap, her fingers twisting together in a rare show of anxiety before she pulled them apart. “Why didn’t Max assign it to you, then? You’re the one with four years of actual police experience. I’ve only got a degree. Why make me the case agent?”
“Because I asked him to.” He held up a hand, forestalling her argument. Her eyes flashed in warning. “You did well with the jogger rapist. I’m still pissed you went off script on that one, but you got him. You need another win to cement your spot in the Violent Crimes unit.”
“Jeez, Dalton, you’re just as much of an FBI rookie as I am. Who are you to give advice to the SAC?” She turned off the TV and shot to her feet, pacing the narrow width of the room. It looked like steam would erupt from her ears any second, but at least she had some color now. She didn’t look so haunted.
Noah shrugged, giving her one of his most irresistible grins. He tipped his chair back on two legs, knowing the cocky pose would rile her up even more. “I’m charming. Everyone likes me. Even you, and you don’t like anyone.”
“I don’t like you much right now, either.” She lashed a foot out to connect with one upraised leg of his chair on her way past him, and he teetered for a second, bracing a quick hand on the wall to keep from tipping over. “Did it have anything to do with the fact that these bones might be Justin’s remains? The initial report said they belonged to a male. Probably between six and ten years old. And they’ve been in the ground for a long time. Years.”
There it was. The wound was lanced, Winter’s pain out in the open.
“Yeah,” Noah said quietly into the stark silence that followed her words. “I thought if there was any chance it could be your little brother, you’d want to be in on it.”
“You were right. But I don’t need your Texas charisma or whatever,” she waved one hand, “to smooth the way for me.”
“I didn’t expect you to thank me,” he replied, sober as a judge. “But I could think of a few ways you could go about it.” He gave her a lewd look and wiggled his eyebrows.
“No fraternizing, Dalton.” A grin twitched at the corner of her lips, spoiling her severe expression just as he’d hoped it would.
“But what about that night you got tanked, and I drove you home—”
“Out. Now.” To emphasize her point, she flung open the door, whacking it against his outstretched foot.
Laughing at her obvious discomfort at the mention of their one not-very-memorable kiss, he stood up and whipped the rubber band around his card deck. “See you in the morning. I’m right next door if you change your mind.”
She snorted and locked the door behind him with a decisive snap.
The smile slid from his face the second the sound faded, and he looked out across the dark parking lot. The itch at the back of his neck was mostly gone. So was the rusted-out blue Chevy that had been parked in the lot earlier. Curious, he jogged down the stairs that led to the main floor units and stepped off the curb, walking to the back row in the lot where the driver of the Chevy would have been. An oily spot marked the asphalt.
He looked up and could make out Winter’s silhouette through the too-thin beige curtains. He hadn’t teased her enough to pull her out of her funk. She was back to pacing again.
And if the man inside the truck was still there, he’d have had a perfect vantage point for looking in Winter’s hotel room window, watching her work out whatever was bothering her.
Winter didn’t sleep that night.
The photo under her mattress seemed to be burning a hole in the bed. The man who had killed her parents and taken her brother had been in her hotel room. The Preacher. What a hateful, hateful name. Sacrilegious.
How had the bastard known she’d be there, what room she’d be in? She had no idea. Did someone do it for him? Was he a Harrisonburg local? An adult she’d known growing up? His kills had been scattered across the country, so it wasn’t likely. But she was sure the photo had been left by him, or at least at his direction.
Should she have told Noah? Turned the photo in for evidence? Instinctively, she knew there wouldn’t be any prints. No one had managed to catch him in decades, and she doubted he’d resurface after all these years just to give himself away with a careless mistake.
Sliding the photo under her door had felt like a personal message. That was fine.
Finding and taking down The Preacher was a very personal vendetta. An eye for an eye. She didn’t plan on sharing that with anyone, either.
Rolling over, her legs tangled in the blankets, she punched her pillow, trying to get comfortable. The red glow of the alarm clock told her it was after three. She tried to shut off her brain, close her eyes, but it was impossible.
Winter finally gave up as the weak gray light of dawn began to illuminate the hotel room. She rolled out of bed and pulled on a pair of stretchy yoga capris and a loose tank top over a sports bra. She’d brushed her teeth and was tying her running shoes when Noah tapped on the door. She stepped out and locked up, tucking the key into the tiny inside pocket at her waistband.
Noah was big, handsome, and irritatingly cheerful for this side of six a.m. His dark hair was growing out from his short military cut and stuck up a little on one side where he’d been sleeping on it. He had on a pair of black basketball shorts and a wrinkled red Texas Longhorns t-shirt. If not for his sharp green eyes and wicked grin, he’d have looked about twelve years old.
Winter felt an unwelcome wave of affection. He really was a great guy. It was damned near impossible not to like him.
“Ready to rock and roll?” His tone was light, but he studied her face like he was searching for something. She stuck her tongue out at him and headed down the stairs to start stretching.
“We’ll run to the park at the edge of town. Easy warm-up, just a few miles. One loop on the trail once we’re there, and then first one back buys breakfast. That way you can’t claim I’ve got home-turf advantage.”
They set off at a comfortable pace. A light, cool breeze banished some of the previous night’s cobwebs and the only sounds besides their rhythmic breathing came from a few passing cars and birds chirping their morning greetings.
“Sleep okay?” Noah asked, just into their second mile.
“Like a baby,” she lied. “You?”
Winter, adjusting to the déjà vu feeling of being back in her hometown, didn’t mind their companionable silence. They passed her fourth-grade teacher’s house, a small brick bungalow on the main street, roses blooming on trellises next to the wide front porch. She wondered if Mrs. Jensen was still teaching. The woman had seemed ancient to Winter back then, but she’d probably only been in her late forties.
They passed the small town’s only grocery store, the Shop N’ Stop. The building had gotten a facelift since she’d last seen it. She remembered putting in her first job application there at the beginning of that last fall. She’d wanted to be a grocery bagger, had dreamed of having extra spending money.
Her dad, a quiet man with a kind, bearded face, had been an English professor at James Madison University. Her mom, sweet and vivacious with long black hair like Winter, had been a housewife. Winter had wanted the after-school job since her small allowance had barely kept her in Bonne Bell lip gloss, but never found out whether the grocery store would have hired her or not.
The sun was just rising when they reached the park, the playground deserted.
The merry-go-round was the same, warped steel with knobby rivets covered with chipped green paint. She’d sat on the metal edge with Sam countless times, Huffy bikes abandoned in the grass nearby. They’d kick lazy circles in the sunshine while they shared a bag of half-melted M&M’s they’d bought at the gas station.
Behind the merry-go-round, swings with weathered seats made out of recycled tires dangled from thick chains, and they clinked and squeaked gently in the breeze. You had to be careful holding those chains while you pumped your legs to go higher. Sometimes, the links would pinch your palms, leaving a painful little blood blister behind.
A new play structure had been put in, painted in bright primary colors. But the old brown metal horse on his huge, rusted spring was still there. She could almost picture Justin in the shadowy morning light, yelling, “Yeehaw,” as he rocked wildly, almost touching the gravel as he lunged forward and back.
Winter picked up her pace, leaving the memories behind.
The past would never change. Right now, she had to focus on what today would bring.
* * *
Noah had taken an instant dislike to Officer Thomas Benton the day before, and twenty-four hours hadn’t improved his opinion. The guy was petulant, sloppy, out of shape, and chock-full of bad attitude. In short, he was a dick.
And, Noah thought, Officer Benton was currently bristling like a pissed off Bantam rooster, his beer gut threatening to pop a uniform button or two.
“I still don’t know why the FBI had to be called in on this,” Benton bitched. “We can handle this just fine at the local level. We don’t even have anything back yet from the medical examiner.”
Winter, her blue eyes glittering, slapped down the pitifully thin manila folder they’d been given to review. “How exactly are you handling this? By doing the bare minimum required by procedure until you can toss this in your cold case file? Have you even started checking missing persons records?”
Gary Miller, the Harrisonburg police chief, cleared his throat firmly. The man looked to be in his late sixties, with wispy gray hair that barely covered a shiny scalp, and the weary face of a man past ready for retirement.
“Tom, we’ve talked about this. We welcome our friends at the FBI.” Chief Miller gave them a wry smile. “We’re on the same team here. Play nice.” He shot Winter a narrow glance, including her in the rebuke.
She nodded back, stiffly, but stood down.
It was time to smooth some feathers.
“We appreciate y’all letting us in on this,” Noah said, laying his drawl down extra thick and giving both men a warm smile. “Mind if we head on out to where y’all found the bones? Seems like a nice day for a walk in the woods.”
He and Winter took their own vehicle and followed the chief and Officer Benton in their squad car. “Come on now, Winter,” Noah said as soon as they pulled out onto the road. “Douchebag or not, you heard what Miller said. He’s going to make sure Officer Benton plays nice, and in return, you’re going to hide the fact that you think he’s completely incompetent.”
“He is.” Winter’s voice was flat. She stared out the window at the fields and farms whizzing by, mountains in the distance. “You saw that file. He barely asked the guy who found the bones any questions. He literally hasn’t done a single thing in the two weeks since the bones were taken for analysis.”
“We’re here now,” Noah said patiently. “We’ll figure this out. We just need to keep things copacetic in the meantime.”
Twenty minutes outside of Harrisonburg and about ten northwest of Linville, the squad car in front of them pulled onto the side of the road. The land was heavily wooded and sloped sharply upward, with trees lining the west side of the road. A recent trail had been hacked through the underbrush, and it was marked with a small evidence flag that wouldn’t have been noticed immediately from the road.
They parked behind the squad car and got out.
“I hope you wore sturdy shoes,” Chief Miller commented, eyeing the steep path. It was clear he’d climbed it more than once and wasn’t a fan.
They’d come prepared. Noah had on a battered pair of hiking boots. Winter wore a broken-in pair of cross trainers that would do just fine. They started up the side of the mountain.
“Pretty strange that someone would happen across a burial site all the way out here, isn’t it?” Noah asked.
Benton, wheezing and red-faced, shook his head. “Hunter and his kid. Going after deer a little out of season, but figured it’d be more important to let us know about the bones.”
Noah glanced over at Winter. He knew she had to be angsty right about now, but her face was a cool, expressionless mask, looking steadily at the dense thicket around them. Her eyes seemed to take in everything at once.
The woman had guts. It was a big reason why he liked her so much.
“Did you charge the hunter?” Noah asked, curious.
“No,” Chief Miller said, skirting a big fallen branch. “I know the guy. He’s laid off. Probably took the deer to feed his family. Bit of a character.” The last sounded like a warning. “Kind of a conspiracy theorist. Anti-government and whatnot. He only called us because I know him from school.”
The path finally leveled off, and they moved deeper into the woods. It was shadowy and quiet, the trees looming high overhead and blocking most of the sun. Mostly oak with a few pines mixed in. Probably old-growth, judging by the size of some of the oak trees.
A few minutes later, they came to a small, natural clearing and Winter seemed to quiver beside him like a hound dog going on point. The ground was more trampled here, and he didn’t need to see the gaping hole in the ground with a tarp still set up over the top of it, or the few scattered evidence flags, to know they’d come to the right spot.
“So, walk me through it,” Noah said to the chief. “How’d they find the bones?”
Beside him, Winter stood silent, studying the trees, the underbrush, the patches of blue sky that showed through the canopy. Everywhere except the spot where a hole beside a freshly turned mound of earth loomed deep and dark.
Was that where her brother’s remains had been all these years?
Chief Miller hitched up his pants and headed in the direction of the evidence flags. Noah glanced again at Winter. She was staring at the ground—a mixture of dead leaves and recently disturbed soil—like she could look right through it. Like she could see things he couldn’t.
Benton was watching her too, the man still huffing and puffing after the exertion of the walk. Noah gave Benton a long look until the man caught him watching and moved away, and then followed the older man.
“Brian Snyder’s the hunter’s name. He and his oldest kid, Liam, were out with a couple of their dogs. Said they shot a doe and were tracking her when Corker, their younger mutt, went off on a wild scent. Duke, the older dog, found the deer over there.” He gestured in a different direction.
“Brian followed Duke while Liam went to see what Corker was after. He came back to his dad with a femur. Brian checked out the spot where they’d found it and saw a skull, obviously human, with a hole in the back of it. He got his boy and his dogs out of there, so they didn’t mess things up any further, and came straight to us.”
“He stop home first to hang that deer up?”
“Of course,” Chief Miller chuckled, recognizing Noah as a fellow hunter. “No call to waste good meat. The bones had been there a while. They weren’t going anyplace.”
“We need a cadaver dog here.”
“What?” the police chief swiveled around while Tom Benton gaped at Winter. They were the first words she’d spoken since they’d gotten out of the car back on the road, and her voice was loud, clear, and decisive.
Benton curled his lip. “For what? We don’t even really know how old those bones are. Could be Indian, for all we know. The forensic people just estimated. You gonna try and dig up a whole Indian burial ground?”
There it was, Noah thought, looking at her speculatively. That weird, almost eerie look Winter sometimes got, where her eyes were focused but distant too. He’d seen it before, specifically when she had a “hunch” on their first case about where their serial rapist would strike next. The rest of the team had brushed her off. She’d gone off on her own, used herself as bait, and caught the guy.
“Can I ask why?” The chief was looking at Winter oddly too. “It does make sense to get the reports back from forensics first.”
Shit. Noah didn’t doubt she knew something, but these guys would have no reason to believe her.
* * *
Winter wanted to stick her foot in her mouth. The Harrisonburg guys were looking at her like she was crazy. Noah was watching her too, his usual lazy, relaxed expression intent.
She should have learned from her last experience, but no. Instead, she blurted things out and came off like an idiot, instead of thinking out reasons and justifications ahead of time.
But she could see all around them, even when she wasn’t looking at the spots directly, that the forest floor was glowing red. Not all over. In small, scattered areas. She couldn’t explain it. It had happened a couple of times before, though, and she trusted…whatever it was.
The jogger in Richmond. She caught him because she’d been able to see a specific spot on a map glow red, just like someone was aiming a laser pointer at it. Instinctively, she’d known where and when to be there to take him down.
Years before that, a rash of burglaries had happened on the SUNY campus she was attending. She’d identified the guy when she saw that the watch on his wrist glowed red. She’d known it was stolen, had put together that he was the thief. But she hadn’t trusted her instincts, and a friend of hers had gotten hurt.
She trusted her instincts now. There were other bodies here. Other victims.
And they were victims. This wasn’t a Native burial site.It was a killer’s dumping ground.