Winter Black Series: Book One
A killer is watching…
Thirteen years ago, Winter Black came home early from a sleepover 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. But when bones found by a hunter lead to the discovery of a secret burial ground containing the remains of children, the investigation suddenly hits close to home as the past and future collide with each new shocking discovery. Will they find her brother’s bones in the makeshift graveyard next?
Only The Preacher knows, and he’ll do anything to keep the past—and its secrets—buried until he’s ready to make his final move.
A masterfully conceived psychological thriller reminiscent of Lisa Jackson, Harlan Coben, and Karin Slaughter, Winter’s Mourn will keep readers turning the pages—and watching the window—long past midnight.
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.