The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Fourteen

FOURTEEN

You had no damn PROOF!”

Mercer clenched his eyes shut at the sound of Chief Hasting’s voice, blaring from the other room, even with the door shut.

“I had all the proof I needed—”

“Did you check in his garage for a car? Did you even think to check with me first? Did it occur to you that this could all be coincidences?”

“But the song—”

Something hit the wall and broke, sending Mercer to his feet, but he didn’t move. Just stood there.

“The SONG? You better come up with a damn better reason than that or you are off this case. And I have half a mind to send you crawling back to where you came from. Because I need an officer who knows how to use her damn head!”

Silence fell after that, and Mercer covered his face with his hands. He was just relieved that Petra Munson and Sullivan Harris had been taken to Hilltown earlier that morning, to proper jail cells. No one should have to witness this.

“I want your gun and your badge, Darcy. You’re done.”

More silence. Then the door to the chief’s office, flying on its hinges, and Andi storming through it.

“We can reevaluate your position here when this murder is solved, Darcy. But for now, go home. Lay low. Keep quiet about everything you’ve learned here. Am I understood?”

But Andi wasn’t listening, even as she came to a stop in the entryway. And turned to Mercer.

“You know I’m right about this. And you’re just going to stand there. Silent. And let this happen.”

Mercer dropped his hands from his face. “Darcy, look at the facts—”

“That’s all I have been looking at. And if you were too, you’d know that Tanner Driscoll put something in that coffee—”

“Sugar, at worst.”

And Andi couldn’t believe it, believe the looks on both of their faces as the chief came and leaned on the threshold of her office, her arms crossed. Her face set.

They didn’t believe her. How could they not believe her?

“He did this. And then when he found us sniffing around the scene, he came for me with that car—not even his own, one he stole. And then he came for you, chief, with that article.” And it was then that Andi realized she hadn’t mentioned that during all the yelling, the accusing. “He wrote those horrible things and sent them around town for everyone to read so that he could get into your head. And now this—the coffee. He’s picking us off one by one—”

“That’s enough, Darcy,” Mercer said. “I’m sorry. But there just isn’t enough to connect Tanner Driscoll to these murders.” He ran a hand through his hair and looked down at the floor, at his feet. Anywhere but at her, at those eyes. “Chief Hastings is right. You need to let this go. Give it a break. And come back when this is over.”

“But it’s not going to be over, Mercer, until we get the right guy.”

“And maybe we already have.”

Andi looked at the chief. “You don’t honestly believe that Sullivan Harris did this. I mean he’s a criminal, but that doesn’t mean—”

Hastings said, “Enough. We’re finished here.” And she returned to her office, closing the door with a bang that rattled even Mercer.

Still, Andi stood there, mouth agape.

“Go, Darcy,” said Mercer. “You have to let this go.”

She went, turning quickly and heading down those stairs, out into the open as though she hadn’t just spent the last few weeks learning how to be a part of this unit.

Mercer watched her go from where he stood beside the window, just as he’d watched her arrive, almost like someone had pressed rewind on their lives. And every step she took that carried her further and further away, Mercer felt a part of himself begin to snap.

Crumble and disintegrate.

He put a hand to his chest and breathed deeply.

The coffee?

Mercer pushed the thought away and turned his back on the window, on the town of Bellriver below, and Andi Darcy fading into the oblivion beyond.

She got in her truck and drove, ignoring the strangers and not-so-strangers waving from the town common as she went.

One thing was absolutely for certain, though. Anderson Darcy had no intentions of going quietly into the night.

Officer Christian Mercer stood at the water’s edge and allowed his gaze, and his thoughts, to wander as far as the pond’s opposite edge. House dotted the shores, though few and far between, and they looked liked old, crumbling blurs amongst the fiery reds and oranges of the trees, igniting the water and reflecting it back towards the sky.

Behind him, deputy officers from Hilltown scoured the bloody sands of the beach far beyond the back porch of Sullivan Harris’ home. A handful still searched the house, but Mercer had offered to lead the team down here. Only, as odd as it may seem, his heart wasn’t in it. Neither was his mind.

“Calvary Pond,” came a voice, and Mercer turned.

Chief Hastings was just entering the scene, and a few officers stood to attention, though she paid them very little notice.

Mercer shook his head and returned his gaze to the water, to the trees along the distant shore. “This town has too many damn bodies of water. Did you even know about this one?”

“Knew about it, certainly. But it’s a private pond.” She saddled up beside him, careful not to get her boots wet. “You okay?”

He shrugged. Then shook out his head. “There were other solutions,” he told her.

“This about Darcy?”

“Anderson,” he said, and he shot her a look. “Anderson Darcy. And yes. You could have handled it differently—”

Her arms were crossed. “I handled it the way I had to.”

Mercer shook his head.

“She had an innocent civilian at gunpoint—”

“And what if he’s not?”

“Not what? Not innocent?”

Mercer turned. “I saw that message written in the sand as clearly as you did, Chief.” Again, he shook his head, returning his gaze to the water. “Harris didn’t do this. I . . . It all adds together. I realize this. You jot down all the facts. Put the pieces together. And it’s Harris. Everything points back to Sullivan Harris. But . . .”

Hastings lowered her voice. “But?”

“But I can’t escape this feeling that . . . that we’re wrong. That he didn’t do this.” He threw a finger in the direction of the blood, the writing in the sands. “If he killed her . . . if he did this, then why write that?”

“Maybe to get us asking that exact question. Think about that?”

“Every damn minute. But Chief—”

“Chief Hastings!”

They both turned in time to see a younger officer from the Hilltown team running towards them. A young woman, not quite thirty, dirty-blond hair tied up in a ponytail.

For a damn moment, Mercer almost thought it was Andi.

“You find something, Officer . . .”

“Shaw,” the woman said. “Lesley Shaw. And yes, ma’am.”

The chief shot Mercer a look at the word ‘ma’am,’ but he simply looked away.

Shaw held up a plastic baggy, and in it was a single SD card.

Mercer reached for it but Hastings got there first. “Where was this?”

The young officer pointed back over her shoulder, as if to indicate the house—like that was at all helpful. “I found it, Chief Hastings. It was in the ceramic frog out front. Heard it rattling around in there when I picked it up.”

Mercer shot Hastings a look. “If Harris killed Kerry Greaves, that seems like the best place to hide a piece of incriminating evidence, don’t you think?” His sarcasm was so thick Hastings could almost see it on his breath. “Outside. No key necessary to enter the house. And Kerry was killed here, outside. With easy access to the beach.”

Shaw shook her head. “You don’t think Sully did it?”

Chief Hastings spared young Officer Shaw a look and said, “Thank you. That’ll be all,” and sent the girl back on her way.

Mercer watched her go, and he couldn’t help but be reminded of Andi, of watching her through that window. Watching as she left—after her told her to go.

“That doesn’t help.” Her voice was deep, throaty, but still soft, quiet. Firm.

“Just pointing out the obvious, chief,” he told her. “You’re looking for someone to blame and—”

“No, Mercer, I’m looking at the facts. Facts are what solve cases. Not feelings. Not simple coincidences. Not turning on the people of this town.”

“You think that’s what Andi did? Turned on these people? On this town?”

“I think she got too close too fast. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. For her. This was supposed to be an easy transition—”

Mercer shifted on his feet. “But it did happen this way. And Anderson Darcy is the reason we’ve made it this far this fast. So, benching her like this, Chief . . . You and me, we’ve been in synch for years. I’ve never stood against you. And you’ve never given me a reason to want to walk away. Only, that’s what you’ve done here today. So, you have my badge, you have my gun. I’ve got your back. You can count on me. But I will never agree with your decision. And I’m never going to be okay with it.”

Mercer started to follow after Shaw, headed back towards the house when he stopped himself. Stood frozen. And it was then that he noticed a few of the Hilltown officers watching them.

“You say facts are what solve cases. But that’s not true, Hastings. Facts get us to where we need to be. But this”—and he jabbed a hand towards the blood, the message written in the sand. Keep looking—“this is not fact. This is emotion. This is someone toying with us. Playing us every step of the road. And who the hell knows, maybe Darcy was right. With the car. The article. Maybe I am next. And maybe you just put me at risk, Chief. Will you still be counting your facts when I wake up under water?”

As he walked away, Chief Hastings could only stare.

“You have to fix this,” Ben said beside her.

She didn’t look at him. Didn’t take her eyes off Mercer, growing smaller with each and every step.

“The entire town is watching,” she whispered. “Every move I make. Every decision . . . He has to understand that. That this could be it for me.”

“And he does. Or, at least he will.”

Lizzie Hastings closed her eyes, held them shut. “Part of me wishes Andi never came here.”

“That’s just the change talking,” said Ben. “You know, change isn’t entirely a bad thing.”

Anderson Darcy was speeding. She didn’t know, exactly, where she was headed, she just knew that she needed to get there. Fast. But as those dirt roadways gave way to crumbled asphalt, and asphalt to smooth, painted roadways, and the town limit stretched out before her, she slammed on the brakes.

The truck came to a rolling halt, sending Andi tipping forward against her seatbelt.

If someone had been behind her, they’d have been dead—smooshed at the very least.

But Andi wasn’t thinking straight—hadn’t, not since she’d heard that song, those grating, sinister lyrics, churning from the small speakers of Tanner Driscoll’s cellphone like a callback to a nightmare Andi was only now realizing she hadn’t fully woken up from.

She unbuckled and dropped the road below. The ground felt different here—and she wondered if she looked as bizarre as she felt, walking away from her truck, its door still open.

Andi’s mind was empty. No, it only felt that way, in all honesty. It was so full, brimming to the point where she was numb, her body heavy, arms and legs seemingly dragging, that the world around her just felt . . . nonexistent. So empty that it became a void.

And then, like a change in the wind, she turned, spinning on that hard asphalt. The rage came like the strike of a whip, hitting her in the small of her gut and radiating outward, pooling through her—such hate—like liquid fire. Flames licking through her bones, setting it all on fire.

She sent a punch to the hood of her truck, then another, and another. Simultaneously kicking her front tire on the driver’s side, again and again and again. Until the strength left her completely and she fell, waiting for the sand and dust of Bellriver to catch her—only to find herself lying there, broken and crumpled on the hard concrete, just like when that car had hit her.

So, she did something she hadn’t done in years. Andi fished out her cell phone, punched in the only number she’d learned by heart, other than her own, and waited. And waited.

She didn’t know why, even after all this time, she still expected her sister to pick up the phone. But she did. Andi could never shake the feeling that, somewhere out there, way back in New Mexico, she would be waiting there for her. Safe. Happy. Living a life of her own. And Andi could almost convince herself it was true. But then she heard her voice on the answering machine—“This is Angie, I’m probably out and about, so you know what to do”—and the sudden revival of her voice brought it all back. Just a reminder of how long it had been since the last time she’d called that number. And why it had been so long.

Her sister was dead.

The last thing Andi saw before the tears came—some from sadness, others frustration—was the end call button, and she tapped it. Sending her sister away, back to New Mexico, and further. To wherever she was now.

Andi Darcy cried, her back to the front of her truck, sitting there in the middle of the road.

Only, her mind didn’t linger on the loss of her sister for very long. It moved on, moved past it in a way she never could before, because her mind didn’t linger in New Mexico. In what had once been. It went back to Bellriver. To Christian Mercer and Chief Lizzie Hastings. To Little Verne and his habit of adopting too many dogs. Her mind went back to Jillian Sweetwater and her story, to Jeannie Fellows and her fiancé, Mark. To Pennilyn and Hattie. To the water’s edge, the soft waves as they lapped against Hadley’s Cove.

To the people. The places and the faces.

To the overlook at Bellriver Heights, and the snow as it fell on a village of lights.

Andi’s mind kept going back to what could have been.

Only, it wasn’t what should have been—because Tanner Driscoll did kill Kerry Greaves. Andi was certain of this. And even though that moment played on constant repeat inside her head, that moment in which she’d brought the bastard to his knees, gun trained down on his head of thinning hair . . . Andi Darcy did not have a single regret about it.

Her hand went to her holster at the thought of it, and the lack of weight—both from her gun and badge—packed an instant punch that would have clobbered her if only Andi hadn’t already begun to rise again.

And rise she did, slowly but surely.

Tears still streaked her youthful face. She wiped them away now, and with one last look into the distance, over that town line, around the bend in the trees and, following the curve of the road, Andi wondered if she was doing the right thing.

Leaving Bellriver . . .

Was this really what she wanted?

Andi got behind the wheel of her truck, slammed the door, and buckled.

She made it half a mile further before turning around.

Donnie Dooley knew it was going to be a weird day from that morning’s events alone. But when he picked up the phone with his usual robotic tone of “Bellriver Library, how can I assist you today?” and received a frantic Mark yelling through the phone in return, Donnie knew it was only about to get worse.

“Slow down, bud. What do you mean she’s gone? Did she leave a note?”

Donnie was amidst the shelves—the very few in existence—restocking the books that Hattie and left out for him. He’d been taking a break from cooking at the Depot. But at the tone of Mark’s voice, the sheer loudness of it alone, had Donnie frozen still, standing up straighter.

The library was dead. Empty. They could have been closed for how many people had come in that morning. But a few of the books on the shelf opposite him were shuffled aside, and Hattie leaned her head through the gap.

She asked, “Who’s gone, Donnie-boy?”

“It’s Mark.”

“Mark’s gone? Where to? That Jeannie?”

“No, Mark.”

“So, Jeannie’s gone?” asked Hattie.

Donnie tapped the tip of his nose, indicating that she was right on the money, and said to Mark, “Where did you last see her? Okay. Okay. And when you got back from the Depot with your food, she’d taken the car?”

Harriet looked stricken then, and Donnie suddenly wondered if she knew where Jeannie had run off to.

Into the phone he said, “Have you checked with Pennilyn and Old Resa? Okay, do that now. Hattie’s with me. We’ll keep our ears to the ground.” A moment passed, and Donnie was nodding to himself. Then he said, “We’ll find her, old pal. Just try to relax.”

But how could he relax? There was still a killer on the loose.

Donnie hung up the phone and turned to Harriet. “Spill,” he said.

“Spill what?” she asked, but Hattie was already fumbling for her keys.

“You know where Jeannie is.”

A hurried nod. “I have my suspicions,” she said. “Watch the library for me?”

Donnie groaned and nodded. “Be careful, okay.”

“It’s Bellriver, Donnie.”

And though that may have meant something once in the past, it meant nothing now.

“Until they find the person who’s done this, it’s not simply Bellriver anymore, Hattie.”

Harriet rolled her eyes—but she knew it was true, better than anyone.

Their home was no longer safe.

“I’ll be alright, Donnie-boy.” She kissed him on the nose and headed for the door, but not before twirling her finger and saying, “Take care of my books.”

He promised he would, and the door banged shut behind her.

As Donnie Dooley stood there, the library entirely silent save for the soft ticking of a clock somewhere in the back, a single thought occurred to him—one he couldn’t shake.

What if they already did catch the person who did this. Kerry’s killer.

And what if they just let him go?

Harriet passed Officer Anderson Darcy driving along in her big truck, heading back to Bellriver. She wondered where the woman was headed now. It was a small town. It didn’t take more than a few hours for the word of her being dropped from the murder case to hit the ears of nearly half the town.

So, if she wasn’t leaving Bellriver, where was she headed?

Hattie shook the thought away for now as she sped into Hilltown. She found the gun range on the far side of town, just where she remembered it being, and pulled into the parking lot at its back.

Se found Jeannie’s car parked there, one tire over the line, as though she’d been in a hurry.

Harriet parked and slipped inside. The place was pretty dead; three, maybe four shooters stood in their own lanes. And sure enough, down on the end, stood Jeannie, large ear muffs around her neck as she readied herself.

“If you aim it like that, you’re only going to embarrass yourself, girly.”

Jeannie whipped her head around at the sound of her voice, and froze. Suddenly panick stricken.

“What are you doing, Jeannie?” Harriet eyed the target at the other end of the shooting range before giving her friend a brief and noticeable onceover. “This,” she said, waving a hand, first at the gun, then the target, “isn’t you.”

Jeannie nodded slowly, crossing her arms. “Maybe not. But this is what I want.” And she turned away from her friend, facing the range before her.

“To be this?”

“This? As in someone with a gun?” Jeannie picked up the weapon—a Ruger SR9, by the looks of it—finger off the trigger, careful not to wave it around.

Hattie looked uneasy, but not because of the gun.

“You tell me this is about self-defense, and I’ll drop it. Tell me this is about protecting Mark, your friends. Your home. And I’ll walk away, Jeannie.” Slowly, reaching out, Hattie placed her hand on Jeannie’s wrist, smoothing her fingers down over her friend’s until they were both holding the gun.

“He came into our lives and he took her . . .” Jeannie choked out the words, gripping the weapon ever tighter. She blinked back tears, forcing her head away so that Harriet wouldn’t see.

“Hey, don’t hide yourself from me, missy,” Hattie said, and she pulled Jeannie’s face back around. “And let me see the gun, Jeannie.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.”

They were at a standstill, but after another few moments, slowly, gently, Jeannie nodded, and she released her grip.

The full weight of the gun fell into Hattie’s hand.

“Now,” she said, taking a step back, inching towards the shooting lane. “You have this crazy notion that you’re going to learn how to shoot and do something reckless to avenge Kerry’s death. But that won’t bring her back.”

“It has to—”

“But it won’t,” Hattie cut in, sternly. “It never will, girly, and you know that better than anyone.”

Jeannie brought up her arms and let them flop down to her sides. “Then what do you suggest?”

“I suggest,” Harriet told her, “that you learn to shoot.” And to Jeannie’s utter surprise, Hattie faced the target at the far end of the room, clutching the gun tight. She brought up her hand and used the other to brace her hold on the weapon.

“But we’re going to do this my way.” She turned her head and kept her eyes locked on Jeannie’s. “We don’t be rash. We won’t do anything illegal. And, most importantly, we’re not going to shoot anyone.”

Hattie’s mind instantly flashed back to that scene on the town common earlier in the day. Officer Darcy standing over Tanner as he fell to his knees, utterly defeated.

Jeannie, her arms wrapped around herself, nodded, quickly wiping at her face.

“Good,” said Hattie. “Then let me show you how it’s done.”

She faced the target and pulled the trigger.

Suddenly, that killer had a face.

Old Resa didn’t sleep a damn wink the night before. It wasn’t because of Pennilyn, snoring as she always did when she came in drunk—which was increasingly less and less over the years—and it wasn’t young Katherine, who’d decided to spend the night. Old Resa was actually glad of the small child’s company in the hours before Penny stumbled in, quiet as a fox in a henhouse.

No, it was the boots. Those damn boots, lurking at the back of their closet. And the face of the person who owned them.

She should have known. From the moment they’d first heard that Kerry Greaves was dead, she should have known who’d done it. But it was that picture that had told her. It was the boots. Those damn boots. A killer’s boots.

She fished them out now. Pennilyn was out, probably still with Harriet. Old Resa didn’t want her other half to know about the boots. To know that they harbored a killer’s footwear.

Such a peculiar thought, Resa supposed as she fished them out of the back of the closet.

Without a moment to lose, or a minute’s thought, Old Resa grabbed her own shoes, her keys, and headed for the door. She knocked at the door and a frantic-looking Mark opened it, staring out into the bright sunshine spilling down.

“Old Resa?”

She grinned, though she wondered if it met her eyes. If she made it believable.

“I have your boots, son,” she said. “You left them at my house.”

Mark reached out and took them. “I’ve been wondering where these got to,” he said, trying for a smile. “Want to come in?”

Old Resa didn’t. “Is Jeannie in?”

“Just got word from Hattie. They’re in Hilltown—something about a shoe sale to take their minds off things.” He shook his head. “I’m actually thinking of heading across the street to the library to see Donnie. Want to come?”

Old Resa didn’t. But she found herself accepting—she was an old woman. Easy to kill. But maybe—just maybe—there was hope for Donnie Dooley. She just had to get to him in time. Warn him.

“I’d love to, dear,” she said.

A sudden thought stopped her in her tracks. Sent a shiver to her very core. “Where is Kathy?” she asked, looking past him.

“After you dropped her off this morning, her mother came to get her.”

Old Resa loosened a breath of relief. Careful, though, as not to make her relief obvious.

“Okay,” she said. “Well, I’ll drive over and meet you there—”

“Nonsense,” Mark told her, shrugging on his coat. He was already wearing his sneakers, so he tossed his boots behind him. “We’ll walk over together. I could use the exercise.”

Old Resa nodded and turned her back, scowling out into the day.

She was not a cussing woman. But before that day was over, Old Resa would be.

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