Winter Black Series - Season Two: Book Three
Is it lights out for Winter?Once an FBI special agent famed for locking up serial killers, Winter Black now finds herself on the other side of the law. Who would have guessed she’d be working on behalf of a potential killer as a private investigator? Her new client is undoubtedly a corrupt businessman who has swindled millions, but is he responsible for the chilling electrocutions of three people? Winter doesn’t think so.
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Peter Davis ran a hand through his hair, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten as he wiped yet one more name from the ledger. He was staying late at his office to finish the job and had been at it for hours already, checking and double-checking to make sure every name was removed.
Well, except those he’d been told to leave in place.
He exhaled a shaky breath and went to the water cooler in the corner, filling what was probably his third or fourth cup. Like the others, he gulped it down and quickly returned to his work.
The IRS would never know about his involvement, and he wouldn’t have to worry about an audit. At least there was that.
If he’d known helping Mat Schultz would land him in so much trouble, he’d have thought twice about hiding the bastard’s dirty dealings. The kickback had been nice, no question about it. But the cost—should he ever be found out—was more than he could risk.
Yet I risked it anyway.
Things had been fine until his phone rang earlier that evening. An unidentified caller, their voice muffled, had threatened to expose the entire scam unless Peter wiped the ledgers clean. He’d been ordered to remove all traces of anyone touching the files except Mat and one of his brokers, Leanne Flick.
Why them? Peter could only speculate.
Mat had recently lost Leanne from his staff, something to do with an affair. Peter wasn’t surprised. He knew about Mat’s extracurricular activities all too well.
The man can’t keep it in his pants long enough to put his shoes on.
The caller insisted only Mat and Leanne’s names should remain on the ledger, so that was what Peter was doing. Even if it took him all night.
Fortunately, he was almost done.
Statements from the most recent transactions were open on his desktop, the screen reflecting light from his banker’s lamp. Rows and columns of numbers swayed in his vision alongside names and contact information. It was late, but more to the point, he was emotionally exhausted. He had just one more ledger sheet to scrub clean. Just this last statement, and he could go home.
He’d already spent almost five hours on this task, well after his employees had left for the evening. He knew his wife had dinner warming in the oven, but just the thought of food made him want to hurl, or maybe it was all the coffee chewing up his stomach. He could no longer tell.
Patty…I’m so sorry.
The sound of his wife’s name coming from that vile, muffled voice had nearly caused Peter’s heart to stop. The threat rang in his ears for hours.
“Your dear wife is an innocent in all this, I know. It would be a shame for Patty to be punished for your sins if you don’t do exactly what I tell you to do.”
Those two little sentences had escalated the entire affair, adding immeasurable weight to Peter’s list of worries. Who was doing this? And why?
Despite the terror that seized him, that muffled voice had sounded familiar even before his wife’s name became the cherry on top of the very real threat. How?
Stop it! Just get this done and over with.
Swiping angrily at some flying insect that had found its way inside, Peter set to work again, clenching against the urge to pee. He had to finish before he could take a piss. All that was left was to double-check his work.
An hour later, after reviewing each entry twice, he saved the file to the cloud and sent the link to the email address the caller had given him.
Dropping his head into his hands in exhaustion and relief, Peter swore never to work with anyone like Mat Schultz again.
At least I can finally take a piss in peace.
As he stood, a soft thud startled him. He ran his hand over the stubble on his chin, wondering which of his employees had returned. It was well after dark, and he couldn’t think of any reason that couldn’t wait until morning.
He figured either his assistant or her latest intern had come back. One of them was always forgetting their damn phone.
When nobody answered, Peter leaned forward, peering into the darkness of the offices outside his door. He detected a noise, something like the soft swishing of fabric.
Without thinking, he slipped a letter opener from his desk drawer, holding it by his side as he crept forward to his open door. Fear took hold as he leaned around the doorjamb, inspecting the darkened offices beyond. He clutched the slender steel tool in his hand. It wasn’t a knife but would still deter a burglar if he got in a good thrust.
Seconds ticked by as sweat beaded his upper lip. A deep, throaty laugh drifted through the office, and the dread seizing Peter’s gut increased. He followed the sound and squinted until he could see the outline of a person.
“What do you want?”
He studied the dark figure, trying to make out their identity.
“What do you want?” he asked again, a bit louder this time.
The unexpected guest didn’t answer but moved out of a shadowy alcove and into the dim light seeping from his office door.
Terror, like a spring of icy water, rose in Peter’s chest.
“You need to leave. I’ll call the police!” He tried to keep his voice cold and firm, gesturing with the letter opener as if it were the sword of Damocles.
Whoever it was, they were clad in black from head to toe and had a scarf or something wrapped over their mouth, plus sunglasses. Obviously, they wanted to hide their identity from him, but why?
He was afraid he already knew that answer.
Peter stepped back into the safety of his office, coming up against the corner of his desk. He pointed the letter opener outward in a shaky hand, but he was feeling less confident about using it by the second.
When the intruder spoke, Peter nearly pissed his pants. “You did as I asked?”
Terrified though he was, the question assuaged some of his panic. Peter lowered his makeshift weapon and sagged against his desk, relief flooding through him. “Yes, yes! All the names are gone. I just sent the email two minutes ago. I hadn’t expected you to—”
“I want you to show me the files. Show me their names are the only ones on them.”
Peter set the letter opener on his desk.
“Can I take a piss first? I’ve been at this all night and haven’t—”
“Now. Show me the files.”
Peter couldn’t believe his ears, but the quicker this person was gone, the quicker he could get to the bathroom. He turned to spin his computer monitor around. “Of course. I’ll show you the damn files.”
Pain. Unbearable, white-hot electricity shot through Peter’s shoulders and down his body, paralyzing him in an agony he’d never known. Like a tree falling in the forest, he toppled as an electrical surge contracted every muscle.
Dozens of white dots blinded him when his head smashed onto his desk on the way down. He barely felt the impact, though, as that pain was simply absorbed into all the torment his body was being subjected to.
When the torrid anguish finally subsided, Peter remained on the floor, unable to move, his heart a thunderous rush in his ears. His breathing rattled in his chest, and every muscle in his body screamed from the trauma of the attack.
He tried to move his lips to yell at his assailant or even form the word why. Why had they done such a thing? But his body refused to obey his commands.
The trickle of something cool touched the hot skin on his face. Water, a small rush of it, covered his cheeks and chin. He couldn’t even lift his hands to wipe it away.
A god-awful chuckle rattled in his ears, seeming to come from all around him as more water poured from above. The heavy glug of the liquid leaving a container was all he could focus on. A pair of black boots stepped into view next to his nose. He wanted to yell, swing at the attacker—anything to fight back.
A crash echoed around him. The glow from the lamp on his desk winked out, pitching the room into darkness save for the faint light coming through the window, and still the water rained down.
Peter’s fingers twitched. Life had returned to his digits. In seconds, maybe minutes, he’d be able to reach out and wrap his hands around his attacker’s neck. He’d squeeze the life out of the sadistic asshole and never let go.
He managed to roll to his right side and get a hand against the carpet as the water continued to puddle around him. The cord of his desk lamp swayed in front of his face like a hypnotist’s medallion, the bare strands of copper wire hovering just above the surface of the pool he lay in.
Eviscerating panic shot through Peter when he realized what his aggressor was planning.
His lips trembled as he tried to form words, wanting an explanation. The slightest movement returned to his lower lip. He pulled it back, anxious for any sensation.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The words were half hiss, half growl. Complete hate. “Except electricity. That shit will kill you.”
Before Peter could respond or even gasp, live wires touched the puddle.
A coursing charge shot through him, flipping him onto his back and lifting his chest off the floor in agony. He couldn’t breathe or move. All he could do was endure the barrage of tremendous pain searing through his flesh.
An image of Patty’s pretty face sprang from the midst of the torture, and he attempted to focus on her.
It didn’t last.
His chest seized like a fist clenching his lungs together. The stench of meat cooking was the last thing he smelled before the world became one bright, white-hot shooting star of misery.
Peter prayed with whatever brain cells he had left. He begged for justice and asked God to end his suffering. With the last traces of life seeping out of his body, Peter Davis hoped that one day the person who laughed as he lay dying would meet the same fate.
Winter Black-Dalton sat behind her newly purchased oak desk, staring out the large window at the Austin street outside. A blank notepad occupied her desk blotter, along with a set of pens she intended to use for her to-do lists, color coding tasks based on priority.
Her downtown private investigation office had been unofficially open for just a day, and she still had so much to do. The roar of a floor sander broke into her thoughts, making her forget the first item she’d planned to put on today’s list.
Pushing to her feet, she stepped from her office and into the reception area of Black Investigations to watch her new contractor finish the sander’s last few passes. She smiled at her good luck. Not only had pulling up the old ugly carpet revealed lovely oak floorboards underneath, but a man who knew exactly how to refinish them had practically fallen into her lap.
Tall and lean with thinning gray hair and the loveliest blue eyes, Kline Hurst had walked into her office two days after she signed the lease, offering his services. He was a stranger—which always made her apprehensive—but there was something calming about the man that Winter could not deny.
They spoke for over an hour about his love of the Dallas Cowboys, how he despised the internet and blamed it for the world’s woes, and how he spent too much money on Coca-Cola Classic memorabilia. His gravelly voice and crooked smile automatically endeared the homegrown Texan to her. Winter hired him on the spot to help renovate the office.
She’d heeded her special agent husband’s insistence on doing a background check and found little to nothing on the man. No priors, no horrible past lurking in the shadows. He’d been a contractor since his youth, working piecemeal construction jobs around the country.
“Something honest about work you do with your hands. It’s always been with me.”
She watched as Kline finished sanding the spot where she hoped to put a selection of bookcases. Even though most of her research took place on her computer, Winter still wanted an area dedicated to a library or conference space in her new digs. Books always made her feel comforted, like chicken soup during the worst of a bad cold. They took her back to her childhood, to the days when she would read for hours.
Those days had ended when a serial killer turned her world upside down.
She closed her eyes, her peace clouded by thoughts of Douglas Kilroy and the horror he’d visited on her family. She was only a teenager when The Preacher, the name the press had given him, killed her parents and took her baby brother, raising him as his own…turning him into an even worse monster.
Her temples throbbed at the memories, yet another reminder of the damage Kilroy had left in his wake. He’d tried to kill her, too, but only managed to leave her in a coma. When she woke to find her family gone, she realized she’d gained a freakish ability to see things she shouldn’t be able to see. A type of sixth sense that had become both a blessing and a curse. She’d—
“You got any idea what kind of bookshelves you’d be wanting?”
Kline’s deep voice brushed away visions of the weeks Winter spent in the hospital, thanks to Douglas Kilroy’s attempt to kill her after dispatching her parents with such savagery.
Winter opened her eyes and concentrated on the back wall, allowing images of barrister bookcases versus open-shelved ones to occupy her mind. “I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet.”
Kline frowned. “Whatcha mean you haven’t decided? I thought you had a plan for how you wanted your office done.”
Winter shrugged, feeling guilty. Interior design wasn’t her thing.
She turned in a circle, taking in the entire space. Before ripping up the carpet, Kline had removed a Formica countertop that sat just inside the door. The counter had served as a checkout area of the shoe store previously occupying the space. He’d followed up by patching holes where display shelves had hung, then priming and painting the walls.
It wasn’t Fifth Avenue, but the office was taking shape and looking better every day. Winter could already envision a welcoming reception area where her clients would be greeted by an assistant she hoped to hire in the near future.
“I haven’t had time to figure that much out. I know I want some shelves back there, but I’m not sure how many. Or what kind.” She walked to the back wall, enjoying the echo of the wood floors under her feet. “I’ve been so busy getting the basic furniture moved in and finishing up my last case…design options haven’t been a consideration.”
Kline huffed, making a sound akin to a grumpy bear, but ended with a chuckle. “Maybe you’d better make it a consideration before all your new clients come streaming in and see these unfinished floors and bare walls. Could give the impression you ran out of money.”
Client impression was yet another thing new to Winter. It wasn’t that long ago when her FBI badge had been impression enough. One flash and people generally did as she said. But now…?
She sighed. Kline was right. As a private investigator, she needed to care about these things.
“I…let’s stick with getting the floors finished first, then we can talk about the walls and bookshelves. Start small, piece by piece.”
“Sounds like good thinking to me. If you don’t mind me saying so, an alcove of bookshelves here would look right pretty.” He walked off a U-shaped section. “It’d create a distinct area where you could put a conference table or even set up more informal club chairs, if that’s your druthers.”
He was right.
Winter could almost see it now. “That would be perfect. It’d block off the break room and restroom area too, giving those spaces more privacy.”
He moved over to the back door. “Exactly. And the bookshelf on this side would create a partition, making this area a place for storage, hiding all the stuff you don’t want your clients to see.”
A thrill of excitement shot through her as her seldom-used creative brain caught on to the possibilities of what her office could be. Her logical brain took back over. “How much will that cost?”
Kline scratched the gray stubble on his chin. “I can run the numbers if you want. I’ll provide a couple of options, from bare basic to more fancy.”
Winter sighed, knowing bare basic would likely still be out of her budget. But Kline was right. She needed to finish the office sooner rather than later. She would happily do so, if she could just focus on the task at hand and move on to a new case.
The whole Freddie Schumaker debacle still weighed on her. She continually thought about her client, Julia, and her younger daughter, little Gabriella. How would the child cope as she got older, knowing what her older sister had done? It kept Winter up at night, even though she knew she had to let it go.
The case was closed. Her job was done.
Still, guilt over what had happened plagued her. Just like her memories of Timothy Stewart and all she’d done to his family. It festered in her like an unhealed wound. During her visit to San Antonio, to his uncle’s home, she’d seen the way little Timothy looked so at ease. His therapy had helped erase some of the damage done.
Winter’s brother, Justin, had kidnapped the poor boy and convinced him that Winter and her colleagues at the FBI were the real villains. It hadn’t taken much convincing, really. Winter knew the depth of Justin’s evil firsthand, having been subjected to it herself, after he’d compelled her to kill Timothy’s parents.
Right in front of him, on the floor of their RV.
She’d tried to make peace with her past, but healing from trauma was like riding a roller coaster that never came to a full stop. Good days were on the open flats sailing along, and bad days had her caught in a steep decline, turning her stomach into mush as the world fell out from underneath her.
Time to look forward, she reminded herself.
She cast a skeptical eye at her contractor, suddenly interested in the rocky road he’d taken to land on her front doorstep. “Have any family in Austin? You never said.”
He pulled at the straps of his gray overalls. “Nope.”
His one-word answer left her even more curious. “Maybe outside of Austin?”
“Well, you like that Google thing so much, why don’t you just look up my family tree on it?” He headed back over to the sander, turning the roaring machine back on. She was glad he’d insisted on renting the type that captured most of the dust. The air was hazy with the bits the machine couldn’t contain as it was.
Winter chuckled as she watched him work on the final section. Feeling comfortable around Kline was a pleasant surprise. Normally, strangers set off her alarms. Any one of them could be another Justin waiting to explode. She glanced at where her reception area would be, hoping the new desk would arrive soon. Would her alarms go off when she started interviewing?
Just one more thing you have to do. Focus on the tasks, one at a time, until it all comes tumbling down and you have to slink back to the Bureau.
As the front door creaked open, a jolt of paranoia merged with Winter’s cynicism, and reflexively, she reached for the sidearm she no longer carried on her hip.
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