In The Bleak Midwinter: A Special Agent Constance Mandalay Novel
everything seemed to be adding up to
foul play.
    Finally satisfied that the car wasn’t there,
Skip panned his gaze lower across the flat expanse of snow. Even
though no tracks were immediately evident, that didn’t necessarily
mean they weren’t there, or even that something else important
might not be hiding in plain sight. Sometimes you just had to look
a little closer. As he swept toward the right, he noticed a dark
spot in the snow just a few feet away from where he was standing
and very near the dumpster—right at the corner of it, in fact. The
stain was roughly the size of a small dinner plate, though much
more oblong in shape, and appeared as if something was melting
through the thin layer of snow cover from beneath.
    He stepped toward the spot and knelt down
next to it, shifting his upper body to keep from casting his shadow
across the anomaly. As he peered at the lumpy, wet mass, the wind
made a sudden shift, sending a flake-filled gust directly into his
face. He blinked against the onslaught of snow and at the same time
sputtered a bit as a foul odor wafted upward into his nostrils.
Taking a second, shallower breath he recognized the smell that was
coming from the mass.
    It was the sharp funk of fresh vomit.
    Skip swallowed hard and continued to inspect
the somewhat teardrop shape in the snow, despite having to battle
his own wave of nausea brought on by both the sight and stench of
the recent puke. Even though his own stomach now felt sour, his
brain was noticing a pattern. The spread of the spilled stomach
contents seemed to indicate that it had been propelled at a slight
angle toward the back of the store, almost as if the person was
facing the door instead of away. However, given the amoeba like
bulge along the outer edge, it also seemed to have been deflected
by something. Sending his eyes upward he found frozen dribbles of
what appeared to be vomit clinging to the corner of the dumpster.
Standing up and angling his gaze back downward, he followed the
splatter in reverse, noticing that it spread in a way that
suggested the person responsible might have been moving in the
opposite direction. The fading line of smaller spots led several
inches away from the primary, appearing to hook around the corner
of the huge metal bin with spray-like lines radiating outward.
    Skip’s heart jumped, felt as if it stopped,
and then it started to race. A new thought popped into his brain.
Perhaps Merrie was simply ill and disoriented with a fever. That
flu had been going around, and it was bad; he knew that for a fact.
Missus Callahan had said Merrie wasn’t feeling well. Maybe it
wasn’t those bad thoughts she claimed to be having. Maybe she
really was sick.
    It could very well be that he had jumped to
conclusions. That he had simply misread the circumstances and then
allowed paranoia to take over, in turn driving him toward a faulty
hypothesis. Maybe he was going to walk around the corner of the
dumpster and find the little girl, delirious with a fever, and
hiding from the world because of it. Right now, he would definitely
settle for that instead of the other option that had been
dominating his thoughts.
    “Merrie?” he called out as he stepped forward
and around the corner of the bin.
    Unfortunately, there was still no answer. Not
only that, there was no Merrie. Just fast falling snow and the hard
line of the dumpster’s shadow where it stood in the swath of light
from the flood lamps overhead. Skip felt the pit of his stomach
sink when he was greeted with nothing more than the oblique line of
blue-black darkness. He stood there for a moment and then looked
out across the lot toward the entrance at the far end.
    Between the heavy moans of the wind he could
hear the occasional noise of traffic out on the main drag in front
of the store.
    He called out again, “Merrie?”
    His voice hitched a ride on a snowy gale and
disappeared into the darkness behind him.
    “Merrie!” he called out again, cupping his
hands on

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