The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Eleven

ELEVEN

That night, as Hattie slipped into bed, her mind took her back to that moment at the bar, and she still felt disturbed. It wasn’t the look on Tanner’s face as he not-so-discretely watched Jeannie from across the bar, or even the darker one that past over him when Mark had shown up. In fact, it had nothing to do with Tanner Driscoll at all—but with Jeannie.

“If you’re up for it, come over for breakfast tomorrow on your way to the library. Or, we can just go to the Depot,” Jeannie had said as Harriet was making her way out, and then she grabbed her around the waist, both in a hug and in the act of stabilizing herself.

Jeannie, Hattie knew, didn’t drink.

Tonight, though. Tonight, she drank. They all did.

“We’ll see how you’re doing in the morning, hon,” she told her friend, but as Hattie passed Jeannie back to her fiancé, who flashed her a knowing look—a look that said Jeannie would not make it to breakfast the following morning—and her own hand slid across Jeannie’s back—where, the hollow of her spine, nestled in the waistband of her trousers, was a gun.

Hattie didn’t know what kind. It was small. A pistol. Nothing extreme.

But the fact that someone as docile as Jeannie Fellows had a gun was extreme.

Harriet was no stranger to guns. It was Bellriver, after all, and it wasn’t like she’d never partaken in the merriment of hunting season. But it was this gun that disturbed her, because Hattie knew what that gun was for. Who it was for.

But even if they knew who killed Kerry Greaves, she couldn’t kill them. This would ruin her. More than Kerry’s own death; this would make her cold, Hattie knew.

She was on the edge now, standing at the precipice. And this—this would throw her over.

As Harriet flicked off her light, nestled snug in her bed, she stared at the ceiling and wondered, not for the first time, who would kill a girl like Kerry. And if she was in Jeannie’s shoes, wouldn’t she do the same?

Hattie cut a glance in the dark to her closet where, locked in a safe buried behind her shoes, was her own gun.

“God help us all,” she whispered to no one.

Christian Mercer blinked against the bright floodlights. Jillian Sweetwater, long hair like quicksilver in the blaze, stepped forward as though she were stepping, seemingly, from the light itself. When she realized who he was, she lowered her gun, but not much, keeping it trained on the tires of the cruiser.

One way or another, they wouldn’t get far if they tried to run.

Beside him, Anderson reached for her own gun, clipped to her side, but Mercer put a hand on her wrist and stopped her.

This would not end in a shootout.

“Stay in the cruiser.”

“But—”

Darcy.” It wasn’t an order, it was a direct command.

He hardly noticed the subtle nod of her head as he opened the door and, hands raised over his head—like he was the perp and Sweetwater the cop—stepped out into the snow.

“This doesn’t look good, chief,” Sweetwater said.

“I’m not the chief.”

The woman, her dark, round eyes set on his, simply said, “You could be,” and Mercer felt a tremor race through him.

“What are you doing here, Mercer?”

“I’m here under official police business—”

“Cut the shit and give it to me straight.” Jillian Sweetwater never once loosened her grip on her weapon. Her steely eyes held his, never blinking. “You’ll find I’m quick to anger, officer. And you’ve already sparked the fuse, I’m afraid.” She hefted the gun and trained it on his midsection. “I heard talk earlier this evening at the Depot. My name being thrown around. Something to do with Miss Greaves’ death.”

“We found a statue,” Mercer said, and he nudged his chin towards the ones guarding her barn. “Similar to those.”

“Found it? Found it where?”

“Beside the body. Out on Hollow Hill.”

“And so you automatically think I did it?”

Mercer stared down the barrel of her gun. “Someone driving your car nearly killed my trainee today, Sweetwater,” he growled.

“I told you mine was stolen.” She coughed up a laugh, but there was no warmth in it, no humor. “For heck’s sake, I called the station. Reported it stolen earlier this night. Even talked to your damn trainee.” She nudged her chin in the direction of Andi, but never once looked at the girl through the glass.

“The owl,” Mercer said. “Why the owl?”

“Ask my ex-husband. He’s the one who carves them.”

“Not you?”

He dropped his hands then, and Jillian Sweetwater tensed, but he flattened his fingers to his thighs to show her he wasn’t reaching for his gun.

Slowly, she shook her head. “It’s his hobby. We sell them for the extra cash, but we don’t make much. He just did it for the fun of it, mostly. Usually owls.”

“But why?”

“Why what?”

“Why only owls?”

“Because of me.”

“You’re heritage? You’re Cheyenne—”

“They have nothing to do with my heritage. They . . .” Jillian Sweetwater suddenly looked stumped. “Enough of this,” she said, and lowered the shotgun. “Tell your trainee to get out of the car and we’ll talk inside.” To show she meant peace, she threw the gun off to the side and started walking back towards her home.

Mercer motioned for Andi now and they followed Sweetwater inside. Andi, he noticed, never once took her hand off her gun.

Good. Wise, he thought. Only, now he had another thought—what if Sweetwater wasn’t the one who killed Kerry. What if it was her husband?

The inside of her house was empty. There was furniture, but things were missing. There was a corner couch but no loveseat to accompany it; there was a tv in one corner, but the table it stood on was gone, leaving marks on the floor from where it had previously stood. There was a fire going, and a few logs littered the floor—where once, he suspected, there was once a basket.

“My husband took his share of the crap,” Sweetwater said, lowering herself to the ground before the fire. She leaned her back against the wall beside it, facing the officers but still feeling its warmth. “You can sit, chief. I ain’t gonna shoot ya.”

Mercer looked at her again, rather sternly. “I’m not the chief.”

Sweetwater made a low noise at the back of her throat, as though she didn’t buy it.

“So,” she told them. “You want to know why the owl.”

“We want to know who killed Kerry Greaves,” Andi spouted, and Sweetwater spared her an icy scowl.

“The trainee’s got a mouth on her,” she said. “It’s good to see my car did you no lasting damage.”

“Your car nearly killed me.”

“Then I feel bad for whomever was driving it. Because the vibes you’re sending me, girl—no one wants to be on the other end of that.”

Andi, Mercer was pleased to find, calmed beside him.

They sat on the couch, but not comfortably. On the edge of the seat. No lounging; this was business, after all. They would act like it.

“We grew up together, my husband and I. Knew each other since we were children. He wasn’t a bad man, then. Otherwise I don’t think I would have fallen in love with him.” She looked absently at the wall now, where, when Mercer followed her face, the outline of a picture frame now sat, and he wondered what it had been a picture of—them together, most likely. Happy.

“I lived on the reservation for most of my life. And my husband, well he grew up in the next town over. Our mom’s worked together, so I saw him rather often. Only, one day he left me a small wood carving on my windowsill. I knew it was from him; he was always trying to wittle something. He was a crafty kid.” She grinned at the memory. “It was his way of telling me he liked me. He would leave me a carving every week, and then one day he left me an owl.

“To the people of my culture, owls symbolize different things. But primarily, owls bring about our own demise. Harbingers of death. The bogeyman to some. And when my father discovered the carving, he took it as a sign—we had to move.”

She shook out her head. “I later learned my parents moved us out of that house because it was structurally unsound, but my father saw it as the last reason for us to leave. So, we left. And we lived in a home two streets over, a whole three-minute walk from my old house.

“My old home was condemned. They put tape around it and announced it would be demolished, but it never was. It’s still there, I think. It was the last time I was home.”

The way she said home surprised Mercer.

“Why did you leave?”

“That’s a longer story for another time. What I will say for now,” Sweetwater told them, “is that that house because a meeting place for my husband and I. A safe place. Every time he wanted to meet me in secret, he’d leave me a carving—always an owl. Small, hidden somewhere that my mother and father would never find it.”

She sighed and pulled her knees up towards her chest, still sitting there on the floor. “We moved years later, after we’d grown and married. He wanted to travel, and so we did. Only we stopped when we got here.”

“Why here?”

“Because of the trees,” she said. “A woodcarver’s haven.”

Mercer had never thought to see it that way, but it was true. Bellriver was the perfect place for a person like her husband.

“Do you think he could have done it, Ms. Sweetwater?”

“Could have killed Kerry Greaves?”

She took a moment to think it over before answering. “I think,” she told them, glancing between Mercer and Andi, “That my husband—my ex-husband,” she corrected herself, wincing ever so slightly, “is no longer the man that used to leave me carvings. He became a man who’d leave them for someone else.”

Mercer looked her over. “He cheated.”

“God only knows how many times.” She scoffed, running a weathered hand down her face. “I know I can be a handful. Heck, you saw me with that gun. I don’t take nothing. And I hear what they say about me in town. Heck, even Hilltown has its word about me. They say I pushed him to cheat. That I practically forced him out of my bed and into another’s’. But I left my home, chief.” Mercer scowled at the word. “I left my family for him. Followed him here. To this life. And now . . .” She raised a hand simply to let it fall back down to her lap. “It is what it is, I guess. But I just wish that it wasn’t.”

“So, he’s trash,” Andi said, no longer caring about sensitivity. “But is he capable of killing someone?”

Jillian Sweetwater paused again. Only, this time, she slowly nodded.

“Wouldn’t be the first time, either.”

Chief Hastings sat in her car for a while before ever getting out. She was parked off to the side of Old Sugarhouse Road, staring at the house that matched the address Darcy had given her. Only, it was dark.

Of course, it could be because whoever owned it could be asleep. But it didn’t have that sort of feel to it—a lived-in feel. It looked . . . vacant.

Now that the snow was coming down hard, Hastings decided to try her luck with the key. She traipsed through the dark and across the front lawn of the small home. No lights flicked on, no audomative voice spoke from some hidden loudspeaker telling her to vacate the property.

There was no car in the drive. The garage door was open—no car there, either.

She slowly made her way up the steps and, quietly, jiggled the door handle. It was locked, just as she’d expected. Probably someone’s summer home, no empty of vacationers.

She took the key that had been found in the room of Kerry Greaves at the Fellows/Shumway household and fit it into the lock.

It was a perfect match.

Hastings smiled to herself and turned the handle—

And someone pulled at the same moment, throwing the door wide. A light flicked on and a large, burly man stood in the doorway. He had something in his hand, and his arm was raised, poised to strike.

But the chief struck first. She had her gun unclipped and in her hand in a flash, and before the man could make a move, she clocked him with it. He groaned and stumbled back, but the chief had a hold on him now and wrenched him forward, out into the snow, down the front steps, where he landed in a heap on his back.

She trained her gun on him now.

“Don’t move,” she shouted. “Don’t you dare move!”

“What do you mean, ‘it wouldn’t be the first time?’”

Andi was on her feet now, and Mercer was quick to follow.

“My husband . . . I shouldn’t be talking about this.”

“You have to now,” Mercer told her. “The cat’s out of the bag.”

Slowly, her eyes glided towards his, and she nodded. “His father was abusive. That was part of the reason we used to meet in secret, to hide him from that horrible, horrible man. He used to beat my husband’s mother. Never got caught—and she was too blind to report him.”

Blind, Mercer thought. Blinded by love.

“One night though, after a particularly grusuem attack against his wife, my husband’s father decided to go out for a drink. And my husband . . . he knew where they kept the gun. Heck, he’d held it hundreds of times before, waiting for the day he finally used it. And that—that had just happened to be the day.”

“He killed his father?” Darcy said.

Jillian Sweetwater nodded. “Stopped him on the road. Ran in front of his truck.” Her eyes went vacant then. “Shot him through the windshield. Not a direct hit, but one that killed. Eventually.”

“And he was never caught?” Mercer could only stare.

“Never,” she said. “He came to me in the night. Found him asleep in the bed beside me. He didn’t tell me what had happened, not for some time. I just remember that night, knowing something was wrong. Something had happened. Something. But he was gone before first light. Slipped back home.”

Mercer shook his head. “Was there no investigation?”

“There was. But he was part of a small community. And everyone agreed that, given the chance, they would have shot the man themselves. But no one confessed. And soon, they moved on. No one cared anymore.”

“And your husband went free.” Andi looked at Mercer now, but he was already watching her—studying the way her face changed when her mind worked.

“What’s your ex-husband’s name, Ms. Sweetwater?”

Lizzie Hastings lowered her gun only after she’d turned on her flashlight to find that the man lying flat on his back in the snow before her wielded a small lamp as a weapon. And not a bat. Or a cleaver. Or a medieval mace of sorts.

Not a weapon at all. Just a lamp.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Hastings snapped.

“Me?” He was a large man, a giant, really, with a head the size of a full-grown watermelon. He pushed his way up, and it was then that the chief saw what he was wearing—a thin undershirt and a pair of short-shorts. Pajama shorts. “You’re the one trespassing!”

“You live here?”

“Course I do!” He looked furious, rubbing his head, but as he got to his feet, unfolding to his full height, he seemed to shake it off. He cut a sharp glance to the gun in her hand, still trained on him. “You thinking of using that?”

“Depends.”

“On what?” And then he stopped, his eyes going wide. “Now, where on earth did you get that?” He motioned to the key in the lock, the door now gently swaying in the wind.

“I’d like to ask you a few questions, son.”

“So, start asking, lady,” he snapped. “It’s cold.”

“For starters, you’re name. What’s your name?”

“Sullivan Harris,” Jillian Sweetwater said. “He has a house here in town. New, I think. Or, at least new to him. But he’s grown dark these days, my husband. Does dirty deeds.”

Andi and Mercer locked eyes.

Sweetwater needed no pressing to continue. “I caught him dealing drugs out of our barn, once. I threatened to divorce him then and there if I ever caught him doing it again. Said we needed the cash.”

“And did you?”

She shook her head. “I think he was full of himself, in a sense, when we first moved here. Thinking everyone would want his carvings. But no one does.” She looked around the room. “It hurts, you know. To be unwanted. To know that you might try as hard as you can, but you can’t make someone love you. Can’t make them love your art. Your carvings.” She shook out her head. “I have a job. We didn’t need the money. I just think Sully thought we did—thought he needed to contribute somehow. Save me, somehow. But I never needed saving. Not really.”

Sweetwater sighed. “I think, if provoked, maybe—yes. Yes, I think he might be capable of killing someone.”

“Someone like Kerry?” Mercer asked.

“She’s just his type. Sweet. Small. Innocent.” Jillian looked at them, then lowered her eyes. “Someone he can use and then leave. Break her heart.”

But did he do more than just break Kerry’s heart?

Mercer studied her now. “Your husband. Where does he live?”

Sully lead Chief Hastings deeper into his house, flicking on lights as he did so. It was a beautiful place, but empty. Boxes had been thrown every which way, and furniture littered the floor like it had no business being where it stood.

“I have nothing to offer you, Chief,” he said, his hands raised. “But I would like to ask you to lower that gun of yours.”

“No can do, Mr. Harris. Not until you tell me about Kerry Greaves.”

He turned the corner into a bedroom—

And stopped. Because there, on the opposite end of a large bed, was a woman. She held a pistol in her trembling hands, and had it trained on Chief Hastings as she entered the room.

“Don’t,” said the chief.

It was all she could manage.

Mercer stopped the cruiser in front of the house. The chief’s car was here, and there were lights on in the house.

“Stay here, Darcy,” ordered Mercer. “I want you safe—”

“No.”

“Damn it, Darcy, just listen to me!”

“She’s in there, damn you!” Andi yelled, and for the first time he saw her angry—full on angry. “Now I’m coming with you. So you can go in alone and I can follow you, or we can go in together.” She pulled a pair of handcuffs out of his glove compartment. “Unless you want to restrain me, Officer Mercer.”

He stared at her, long and hard, before saying, “Stay behind me. And stay quiet.”

She hopped out, gun drawn at the ready. Mercer had his own pointed at the ground.

They heard the gun go off before they’d even reached the porch.

Mercer stopped.

There came another shot.

And then another. And another.

Too late, were the only words that ran through his mind in that moment.

I’m too late.

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