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“Brookes! Lance Brookes… you got your ears on? Bro… you there?”
Brookes grumbled, setting the skillet heavily down on the stove. He’d installed a police radio in his cabin back in the day, but that was before his world had turned upside down.
He’d shut it off completely if it wasn’t for Tycho. His former colleague from the Corwell police department promised to contact him only in extreme emergencies.
He was lucky Brookes agreed to even do that after everything that had happened, but Tycho was a good guy, along with a handful of newbies. Everyone else was absolutely to blame for what had happened.
“We’ve got ourselves one of those emergencies we talked about,” Tycho said.
Tycho had cut up his peace more times than he could count with his constant “emergencies”—from crowing about his team scoring against the Rams to begging to meet up for drinks. His friend was worried about Brookes. All of them were. Tycho should take that worry and use it to get at the ones who’d done this to him.
Failing that, Brookes wanted nothing to do with his pity.
He was getting ready to rip the cord out of the receiver. He ignored his friend’s attempt at forcing him to live again, setting the pot under the faucet. The water came out steaming hot, despite the blizzard outside.
So far the pipes were good. He’d built them deep into the cabin, away from the outside walls so they’d be safe from freezing. The electricity was sustained by sun panels and a backup generator system. His water came from a deep underground well. He had a woodshed with chickens and even a cow. He’d taken all those off-the-grid things into consideration when he’d built this home for his family.
Back then, he’d lived, breathed, and ate up this survivalist stuff. Alice had inherited the land from her grandparents, and becoming a mountain man had turned into Brookes’s favorite hobby, not the necessity that it was now. Alice had talked about renting the cabin out on CozyCottages.com, since the place was only meant as a summer retreat.
That was before he’d lost everything that ever mattered to him.
“Brookes… need a bird’s eye on… the pass.”
Tycho had taken to referring to his place as the bird’s eye since Brookes had a clear view of the pass from above, over the trees in Silver Forest. It was perfect actually, especially when the sun burst over the mountains and embraced the valley in its golden halo.
Alice had always loved it.
Of course, the clouds were too murky this winter to give him that perfect sunrise.
“You out hunting…?” Tycho was coming in spotty now. Good. That might mean he’d lose him in this blizzard. “Loser, pick… up.”
Brookes chucked a spoonful of cider into his mug in answer.
“Lance!” He could almost hear his wife’s lecturing voice. Alice was Corwell Elementary’s best fifth grade teacher, so she had a strict one. She’d follow that with a kiss that would’ve ensured Brookes ignored Tycho for at least another minute. “Don’t leave your friend hanging,” she’d say.
He gulped, not sure if he wanted to be caught in this fantasy.
Alice’s eyes were hypnotic—a type of yellow hazel. Her hair was curly and black. Her sandy brown skin was a shade lighter than his and so soft that he never got tired of touching it.
Stop it. It’s been long enough. Don’t think. Do. That’s how you get through.
It was supposed to be how people endured these things, so why did this still hurt? He’d lost many good friends in Afghanistan, but he didn’t know what true pain was until now.
“Looking for…” The connection was breaking up. The storm was really bad out there. “… on the run. Code 45.” It was a kidnapping situation.
Brookes jerked forward, almost spilling his cider all over him in the process. He threw all his differences aside when monsters like these showed up. Too many perps had slipped past the law with the corrupt Meyers leading Corwell PD.
He picked up the receiver. “Give me an ID on the vehicle.”
“Light blue…” The connection broke up while trying to give the license plate number.
Brookes wrote down what he could. “ID on the victim,” he said, realizing that they didn’t have much time before the storm wiped everything completely out.
Tycho was trying to tell him, but the reception was awful. Brookes caught the last of what his friend was saying: “… someone from… out of town.”
He wasn’t getting anything. Who was the victim? An adult? A child? “I’m not catching that.”
“… closing the pass due to the storm. Dangers… avalanche…”
That wasn’t what he’d asked. Tycho must not be catching anything he was saying either. “Who’s the perp?” Brookes tried again. “Who’s the driver?”
He only got static.
So Brookes was looking for an unspecified driver with an unspecified hostage in a blue car. What was he supposed to do, chase down every blue car that he found? He grabbed his winter gear, fitting his gun in easy reach before he threw on his heavy, black down coat. He shoved his feet into his boots, moving out onto his balcony.
The cold wetness shot against his face the instant he was outside. His bird’s eye view of anyone entering the pass was nonexistent. The blizzard was at its worst. This might narrow down his list of suspects from Tycho’s broken up instructions because no one would be stupid enough to try to go through this storm, except a psychopath.
… and maybe someone like Brookes.
His thirst for justice was the only thing that wormed its way through the dead, mangled mass that had become of his heart.
Rescuing the victims? That used to be his motivation. He’d seen Jenson in the eyes of every hurt child; every wronged woman somehow became Alice, but now? He took one look at a perp and saw the creep who’d been behind his family’s accident in each hardened face—no matter how these criminals pretended remorse or expressed a desire to change, they never would’ve given their sins a second thought if they hadn’t gotten caught.
The criminal system was a joke! Why should these rats get the chance to live carefree, happy lives when they’d stolen everything he’d ever loved from him?
They brought pain on this world by just breathing their same air.
The thing was that it was impossible to hurt them like they’d hurt everyone they came in contact with, because to feel anything resembling Brookes’s pain, they’d have to feel his same love—impossible for these dirtbags.
And still Brookes would never stop trying to inflict his revenge on them. He couldn’t stop.
Jenson’s laughter echoed through the snow. “Daddy! Watch me. I’m going to slide.”
He didn’t go far. His little son went probably two inches in their flat backyard on his sled.
Alice rested her chin against his shoulder as she came up behind Brookes. Her arms brushed against his back. “Honey, call in sick today. Let’s go to Eight Falls together. There are some good hills there near the cabin.”
“Babe!” She sure knew how to tempt him, but they were so close to catching the thug who’d robbed the string of mom and pop stores a week before. He knew the owners of those stores—just honest, hardworking folks trying to make ends meet. “I wish I could, but… bring home some of that snow for me.”
He’d kissed her for the last time.
Brookes glared into the darkness. He was a tiger chasing his tail, always snarling, always furious… and never reaching anything that would bring him satisfaction.
Would this next hunt bring him the reckoning he craved?
He stared down into the murky blackness swirling in fog and snow. No headlights broke through the storm. There were still some patches covered by the forest he could scour for signs of life, but not much could last out there. The roads turned into ice this time of year. That wasn’t the worst of it. The snow against the cliffs had a tendency to break into avalanches, literally blocking the highway to stop anyone from getting through, sometimes for months. If that avalanche fell on anyone?
They’d be buried alive.
Brookes’s hands clenched the railing of the balcony as he decided whether he should go out into the eye of this storm to cut off this perp’s fun-filled car chase or… let the guy rot out there.
The only thing he had to lose was the habit of living. When every breath brought a fresh wave of overwhelming pain, it wasn’t a sacrifice to risk this broken existence that he somehow found himself in. Sorrow and anger accompanied every beat of his heart. Weren’t these things supposed to get easier with time?
It had been five years!
God, why can’t I shake this?
He caught himself in horror at the relief of crying out to—to what? He didn’t even know.
No, no. Praying was Alice’s thing, not his… especially after everything that had happened. Jenson would be eleven now. His boy had hopped up and down, looking like an orange marshmallow in all those puffy layers of snow gear as he begged his daddy to come along sledding. He’d lost a mouthful of teeth—that jack-a-lantern smile almost convinced Brookes to call in sick.
Yeah, I’m going out to find that perp.
Brookes headed for the stairs to hunt down that kidnapper seconds before a loud boom sounded behind him. The lights in his house flickered out.
Was that his generator?
Growling, he stumbled down the suddenly darkened steps to the thick snow below him. The drifts were already packed to his knees. He’d have to work fast. His bigger four-wheel vehicles would have a hard time getting through all this, but once it was time to break out the snowmobiles, he’d be dealing with treacherous terrain that got people killed.
Instead of going to the garage, however, he headed out on foot to check his energy source.
If he survived taking down the kidnapper, he didn’t want to return to frozen pipes.
Brookes fought through the blistering cold to reach the shed where he kept his generator. The compact building was a shadow in this storm. The closer he came to it, the more the silhouette appeared to be less a rectangle than it had been earlier that night. The heavy snow had collapsed the roof. His generator was buried in a mound of snow and broken planks.
Grumbling through his frustration, he dug through the mess, wishing he’d brought his flashlight. His hands found the hard edges of metal where his generator was submerged under the wreckage. It was still intact. Hoping that the machinery hadn’t become waterlogged, he worked on shoving the heavy equipment under the part of the shed that was left standing.
As soon as he did, he brushed off the snow and flipped the switch off, and then on. Only half the lights from inside came back.
Glancing over his shoulder at his rustic home frosted in snow, he grunted out a disdainful laugh.
Ah really? My prepper cave resembles a gingerbread house stuck in a snow globe.
Way too cute for these hazardous conditions! The white blissful fall of snow glittered through the lights shining from his cabin, surrounded by drooping trees and twisting fog. The roof didn’t even need Christmas lights. A celestial blue glow emanated from his home like it had been blessed from heaven. Alice would’ve been enchanted by the sweet little reminder of her beloved holiday. Maybe once, Brookes would’ve been too.
But now the angelic sight was a glaring reminder of everything he’d lost shoved in his face, almost like how it felt when his older brothers whitewashed him in the snow back in the day to give him a face-full of Christmas.
The season was no longer his favorite time of the year. And yeah, that was a huge understatement. It was time to remodel his place, wasn’t it? He’d paint that cute little red roof a dull gray the first chance he got.
He found the supply of nails and a hammer from his stash in the shed and got to work securing what was left of the structure meant to house his generator. He’d go back to the house and start flipping tripped breakers to get the rest of the lights on before heading out. As soon as he was satisfied with his temporary fix, he turned back to his sickeningly cute cabin.
The moment he did, he heard the scream. He whipped around, staring through the darkness of Silver Forest before him. Was that a wild animal?
Unless wild animals said, “Hey,” then no. He twisted, trying to find the source of the noise.
“Over here!” a female shouted. “Do you see me? Help us! We’re over here.”
Who were these stranded travelers? Lost Christmas tree hunters? Or worse… was this the girl who’d been kidnapped by that perp? He searched the darkness, not seeing her… or anyone else for that matter.
“Keep calling out,” he shouted. “Are you alone?”
“No, no! It’s the two of us!”
And he had his gun on him. Her abductor wouldn’t get the jump on him. “I’m coming. Keep talking.”
“My—my… Milo, he’s not okay! He’s too cold. Help us!”
A female figure struggled through the snow. As he advanced on her, he saw she was supporting someone else through the storm.
He shoved through the heavy powder, his lungs burning in the cold as he covered the rest of the distance. He saw the woman held a child. He was small by the looks of things, with no coat and short sleeves. They’d been out here for a long time. Snow covered them both so that they resembled ice statues more than humans. The kid wasn’t moving.
His heart lurched in sudden panic.
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