The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Fifteen

FIFTEEN

Chief Lizzie Hastings sipped her coffee slowly and stared across the table, over the screen of Mercer’s ex-wife’s laptop, and looked deep into the black eyes of Sullivan Harris. He was a brute of a man, towering over her by at least a foot, but she felt no fear in looking at him.

Mercer, too, felt a peculiar calmness emanating from the man from where he sat beside the chief.

They were in the basement of the Hilltown Police Station, where five small jail cells lined a single, wide corridor, two on each wall with one on the end. Petra was in this one, laying across the small cot, snoozing away.

A few Hilltown officers had set up a table downstairs, and this is where they now sat, Harris on one end, his back to Petra’s cell, and Hastings and Mercer on the other.

“All signs point to you,” echoed the chief, shaking her head from left to right, and Mercer clicked the right arrow key on the old laptop. The next picture popped up on the screen: Calvary Pond at dawn.

It was beautiful, Mercer had to admit. Fog rose up off the surface of the water in hazy tendrils, and the sun, just peaking through the trees, set the world on fire, gilding anything and everything in sight.

“Kerry and I hooked up a few times,” Harris said, raising his hands to indicate submission, surrender. “I even told her she could use my backyard for photos. She told me about Hadley’s Cove, a hidden spot Jeannie and Mark would bring her to, somewhere across the pond, and I told her she could use my property. In exchange . . .”

Sullivan Harris stopped himself.

“Yes?” Mercer asked. “In exchange for?”

Sully simply raised his eyebrows, then wiggled them, emphasizing his point.

“We kind of sort of struck up a . . . a bargain, I guess you could say.” He tried to rub the back of his neck, but his hands were chained to the table and he was restrained in mid motion.

Mercer scowled. “She got pills and photos. You got money and . . . sex?”

He didn’t say anything to this, but after a moment, slowly nodded.

Hastings shook her head. “There are tons of lakes in this town. What’s so special about this one?”

Sully shook his head. “Maybe I’m just . . . special.”

Both Mercer and Hastings shared a glance, and then Sullivan Harris drummed his fingers on the table.

“Wait, there was another reason she wanted those photos. It was for some kind of job. Like proof, I guess. Proof that she knew what she was doing.” Harris shook his head. “She kept saying it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Always checked her email on her computer, nonstop.”

Mercer sat up straighter. “A computer?”

Harris nodded. “Yeah, she brought her laptop everywhere. Kept it in her bag.”

Chief Hastings looked at Mercer and said, “We never found her computer. Not at Jeannie’s and not here, either.”

“It was a competition.”

They looked at Sullivan Harris, but his eyes were closed, and he was thinking back, trying to remember. “There was someone else vying for the position. But only one photographer was going to be hired. Only . . .” He opened his eyes and shook his head. “Damn, I wish I’d paid more attention.”

Mercer leaned forward. “Only . . . What were you going to say?”

“Only,” Sully repeated, “as interested as she was in this job, always checking her email like I said, I honestly don’t think her heart was in it. I know it was some kind of travel job. She would be taking photos in different countries. Only, when Kerry came back to town, I felt . . .”

Hastings nodded. “You felt?”

“Honestly, like she was here for the long haul. That she never really had any intention of leaving again.”

And maybe, Mercer thought, she didn’t.

“Her phone,” Sully suddenly said.

“What about it?”

“Kerry had email on her phone,” he told them. “Whoever did this probably took the bag she had on her with her laptop. I tell you she never went anywhere without it. But if you have her phone, I’m sure you can check her emails. Maybe there’s something about the job there.”

Again, Mercer and Chief Hastings shared a glance.

It was worth a shot.

Only . . .

“A phone was never found. She didn’t have it on her,” Mercer said. “But what if it’s still out there?”

“Out where?” asked Chief Hastings. “Out on Hollow Hill? We had a team sweep the area.”

“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t missed. And besides, it could have been buried.” Mercer stood.

“You’re going to go check?”

“No,” said Mercer. “But I know someone who will.”

Little Verne was cold. He loved the cold when he was inside, warm by the fire, reading a good old Stephen King in the rocker. But outside, in the frost and the snow, waddling around under layer after layer, he almost wished for summer.

Hollow Hill stretched out before him, just as it had that day he’d wandered into the pasture and stumbled upon the body of Kerry Greaves. The Harrowing Tree towered above, daunting as always, hardly moving despite the sudden heavy breezes swirling up the thin layer of snow that had refused to melt overnight.

Silvia, his German Shephard with the wonky left eye—her past owners had burned her, he suspected—wandered into the pasture and stumbled over nothing. Her depth perception was off, Little Verne knew, always tripping over something.

That’s something they had in common, though. And it was part of the reason Verne had taken to her so easily. They were both old and broken in more ways than one, but they lived each day one at a time. Him with his sciatica, her with the perpetual tremble in the back-right knee.

They were a motley couple, but Little Verne rarely went anywhere without Silvia. And rarely did she let him.

He pulled out his phone and dialed the number Officer Mercer had given him but waited to hit call until he was standing in the heart of the field, right around where he’d first happened upon the girl in the grass.

Little Verne hated cellphones. Thought they were simply time wasters. He’d accepted the early models, the ones that called and did very little else. But all these new-fangled things? No, he was good with Bellriver’s few payphones. The Depot had a landline. The people he needed to reach were within driving distance.

When Neffy Wicker had showed up at his door, waving a cellphone around, Little Verne had half a mind to turn him away.

“Yes, HELLO? Who is this?”

“Verne? It’s Mercer. Stop yelling. I can hear you just fine.

“Oh hey, Chief.”

“Not, Chief, Verne.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. I need a favor. Can you help me out?”

“Depends,” Little Verne shouted into the phone once more. (On the other end of the line, Mercer winced, holding his cell away from his head.) “Do I get a badge and a gun?”

A low chuckle escaped the officer. “Not today, Little Verne. I just need you to run a quick errand for me. Ask that Wicker boy if you can borrow this phone. You’re going to need it.”

Little Verne sighed. “I don’t work for you, you know.”

“Consider this your application.”

“But I don’t want to apply?”

“What do you want?”

Verne’s gaze shifted to where Silvia laid, bathing in the warmth of the sun, out on their front porch. “A favor,” he said, smiling to himself. “I want you to owe me, Mercer.”

On the other end of the line, Mercer sighed. “Deal.”

Now, Little Verne stood at the hollow in the hill, where the body of Kerry Greaves had flattened the grass. Silvia sniffed amidst the pasture, only visible by how the grass shifted and stirred.

“Don’t you wander too far now, Miss Silvia,” he hollered, then punched dial on the cellphone.

He waited.

A low ringing sounded from somewhere not too far away.

Bingo.

Silvia must have heard it too, for she headed in the direction the ringing was coming from. And she headed straight for the Harrowing Tree.

Little Verne exited the tall grass and, using the tree for support, lowered himself into a crouch beside his dog. The ringing had stopped, so he dialed the number again and waited. It sprouted right beneath him, as if the earth were calling out, telling him I’m here, I’m here!

As if he could forget.

With a single look at Silvia, Little Verne gently tapped her twice on her back and said the word, “Dig.” A light seemed to shine in his pup’s single eye, for she knew that word. Growing up on a farm, she knew that word very well.

Silvia began to dig right at the roots of the Harrowing Tree, only stopping when an iPhone went skittering across the cold earth.

The source of the dreaded ringing.

Silvia took it in her maw and headed back towards Little Verne’s truck, waving her head around as if to say, “This is my prize, and I’m not sharing it.”

“Hey, you! Come back now! Hey, I’m gonna need that!”

Mercer was not at all surprised to find Little Verne waiting for him outside of Hilltown PD with a black lab sitting on the ground beside him. Only, it wasn’t Susan, and it certainly wasn’t Silvia. And, judging from its small size, Mercer doubted it was the new one he’d taken in just a few days before.

“Cashing in that favor already, I suspect?”

“Meet Little Fender,” said Little Verne as he reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out the phone.

“Ugg, it’s covered it slobber,” Mercer grumbled, but clutched it tightly, then petted Fender softly on the head.

“Jeese, that Darcy girl was right. You’re just never happy.” Little Verne shook out his head. “Where is that girl, anyway? Haven’t seen her happy face in a few days.”

Mercer ignored this. “Thanks for the phone, Verne.”

He nodded. “Thanks for the dog.”

“Why Fender, by the way?”

“He’s de Fender. Defender. It’s French,” he said.

Mercer pinched the bridge of his nose. “It doesn’t work that way, Verne.”

Only, the small man didn’t seem to care. Or be listening at all.

“Just keep this under wraps. Got it? And keep that dog away from any funerals. Am I clear?”

“As daybreak,” said Little Verne, too distracted by his new puppy to care much about anything else. He was already headed back towards his truck.

“Thanks again, my friend,” said Mercer, holding up the slobbery phone. “Where did you find it, anyway?”

“Hollow Hill,” said Little Verne. “Right where you said. Only, it wasn’t by where I found the body.”

“Then where?”

“Buried before the tree.”

Mercer stared. “That’s easily twenty yards from where she was dragged.”

Verne stared through his truck window. “Seemed deliberate, if you ask me.” He shook his head. “But then again, I’m not a cop.” He honked his horn and started off, Little Fender buckled in the passenger’s seat beside him as they headed for home.

Piper Sheridan had run out of things to do to keep her mind occupied. She wasn’t working, and for the first time in forever, she had time to simply sit and think. It wasn’t her favorite thing, sitting, thinking. But she did it anyway. That’s what had brought her to the town common when that young officer had drawn her gun.

She’d seen it all, though what she’d seen still confused her.

Most people either knew, or knew of Tanner Driscoll. Few loved him, saw him as a friend, as family. He was a member of town, though not an entirely communicative one; never one to show up to town meetings, never showed his face at any functions unless he was dragged. Always seemed to have to buy a smile, rather than wear one of his own.

Piper wasn’t the most trustworthy person, and this she’d happily admit. Maybe it had to do with her upkeeping, maybe it was her father having been a cop. All the murder mysteries that littered the walls and floors of her house.

“You sure you don’t wanna jump into the family business? It’s never too late,” her daddy always said whenever he swung by the house, which was often. He was always finding something to fix, or finding himself fairly “parched,” as he says, on his long walks into town.

Piper had thought about it once, twice, half-a-million times, but she’d take one look at her daddy’s life—his constant absence, his ever-present exhaustion, his working all hours of the day and night. Constantly waking her and her momma up on his way to bed.

Very little enticed Piper Sheridan about following in her father’s footsteps. But as she’d watched the scene unfold that morning, the young cop pinning Mr. Driscoll in her sights, Piper had actually allowed herself to imagine that he’d done it—that Tanner Driscoll had killed Kerry Greaves, murdered her in cold blood—and something inside of her flickered.

Call it a flame, a single kernel of interest, an ember sparking.

But for the first time, Piper saw what had always captivated her father when it came to these cases. Of course, he worked in Pleasant Mill—for God only knows how long—and never really brought his work home with him. Only, Piper knew. She saw it in him. That’s why he was always gone—because there was always someone else to chase.

And she saw that chase today. Clear as day. Saw what it must have felt like to be close, to know with such certainty that the person you’d been after all this time was standing right in front of you.

All these hours later, Piper hadn’t left. Where was she to go? She lived in town, had no job. And with the money she had saved up, she could afford a small vacation. So, she’d sat all this time, feeling the warmth of the sun bake on her neck—still so hot, even this late into the season—as it rotated higher and higher, and watched as the town came to life.

She watched it all, even saw that cranky woman—the one married to that other woman—knock on Tanner Driscoll’s door. Watched as he invited her in and shut the door.

Piper suddenly felt a sinking in her stomach. But before that feeling could worsen, she was on her feet and walking. She didn’t have a plan, even as she raised her hand and knocked on that same door. She still didn’t have a plan, even as Tanner Driscoll opened the door.

“Can I help you?”

“What’s this?” Lizzie Hastings asked.

Mercer threw the paper towels in the trash beneath the table and offered Hastings the freshly cleaned phone.

“I had Little Verne do us a favor. He found it out on Hollow Hill.”

“By the body?”

Mercer shook his head. “Buried at the base of the Harrowing Tree. Seemed deliberate, or at least Verne thinks so. And so do I, if we’re being honest.”

“But why not simply destroy it?” Hastings asked, holding down the power button.

It took a few moments, but suddenly it came to life, flashing a photograph across the lock screen. It was of Jeannie Fellows and her friends, all clustered together. All happy. All smiling. Save for one.

Hastings suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Passcode protected,” she said. Then, looking at Mercer. “I’m surprised it wasn’t killed by the snow.”

“Maybe the soil insulated it,” he said. “Kept it warm these past few nights.”

Sullivan Harris said, “Try 3389.”

Hastings looked at him and typed in the numbers. It instantly unlocked.”

At the chief’s look, he shrugged and said, “I saw her type it in once. I asked her the significance, but she’d only tell me that it was a date. March 3rd, 1989.”

“Her father’s birthday,” Mercer tried, but then shook his head. “No, that would make him way too young. Kerry’s maybe?”

“Too old,” said Hastings, shrugging a shoulder. A mess of apps opened before her. “Here, take this. This is to technical for me.”

Mercer took the phone and spared her a look. “You think I know how to use one of these? This is Bellriver, land of no reception. I can hardly use the landline.”

Still, despite this Mercer did know a little about smartphones. He had one himself, though he rarely used it.

Kerry’s email was saved as an app, right beside Instagram and Venmo. He opened the latter first, and searched her payment history.

“I take it you’re Silly Sully,” said Mercer, showing him the phone.

Sullivan Harris nodded. “Easier than dealing with cash,” he said. “This was she could simply pay me through the phone.”

“Weren’t you worried about a paper trail?”

“Not really,” Sully said. “Most cops really don’t use Venmo.” He spread his hands at Hastings and Mercer, as if to say case in point.

“Check her email,” said Hastings, and Mercer did.

It was pretty standard stuff. Instagram notifications. Pinterest. A whole ton of trash. A bunch of photography magazine subscription newsletters. Emails from stores selling cameras and other photography equipment. Amazon updates on new releases.

Mercer scrolled all the way down to the bottom, going back to July, but found nothing important.

He sighed, “We’ll keep looking. But it’s a start. Clearly whoever killed Kerry Greaves didn’t want us finding this.”

“Or maybe they did,” Hastings said. “Just not right away.”

“You think they’re playing a game?”

She nodded. “You saw that message in the sand. They know we’re on to them, Mercer. They know we’re coming.”

Sullivan Harris raised his hands—to the best of his ability.

“Does this mean you find me innocent?”

Andi parked her truck outside of the station but kept it running. She didn’t know what she was doing. The chief had commanded that she leave this case alone, and Mercer had gone along with every word. But this was her first case as a real police officer, and Andi had no intentions of simply taking a vacation.

There wasn’t anything to do in Bellriver.

Maybe that’s why Tanner Driscoll had killed poor Kerry Greaves. A lack of something to do.

Andi shook her head at the thought. Stupid. This murder was premeditated. The owl statue. The SD card left out on Hollow Hill. The second statue the Chief had found, and that message—Keep Looking—written in the sand.

This wasn’t a split-second decision. This was planned—and planned well.

But, as much as it pained her to admit, she knew the chief was right. Andi had no proof. She should have waited to draw her gun, should have acted with restraint, should have . . .

Only she hadn’t. And Andi needed to move on now. It was done. It happened. Now it was over.

But not the case. The killer wasn’t caught—and maybe he wasn’t done, either.

Which meant neither was Andi.

It wasn’t over until it was over—

She didn’t know the woman standing at Tanner Driscoll’s door. But suddenly, in that moment, Andi wanted nothing more than to meet her.

If Tanner Driscoll killed Kerry—and she knew he did—then everyone who spoke to him, everyone who had anything to do with him, really, was a suspect.

Or, maybe—just maybe—an ally.

“Can I help you?”

The question hung in the air between them. Piper stared up into the dead eyes of Tanner Driscoll and froze.

Dead.

That was the word she was always looking for whenever she saw that man, either at the Depot or talking to that Hattie woman up at the library. His eyes, it wasn’t simply that there was something off about them, as everyone said. No, they were just . . . dead. Not lifeless, but as though there had never really been any life in them to begin with.

Piper swallowed, and before she had any idea what she was doing, she reached into the purse on her arm—suddenly thankful that she kept her daddy’s firearm on her wherever she went—and stupidly dug around until she found her wallet.

“Piper Sheridan,” she said, flashing her liscence, as though he were a traffic cop, or someone at the grocery store, in need of facial verification.

Tanner’s face remained the same. Not a brow twitched. His lips remained a firm, hard line.

“I know who you are,” he said. “What’s this about?”

“You probably haven’t heard,” she told him, “but I just started out as a reporter for the Bellriver Ringer and . . .”

“You’re a school teacher.”

“Was. And wasn’t, actually. I was an aide in Hilltown, that’s correct. But I’ve recently . . . reevaluated my situation, you could say and now”—she held up her wallet with her license in the small window—“I’m doing this. So, mind having a quick talk?”

Tanner looked as though he was about to close the door in her face when he suddenly glanced behind him, as though remembering he had company and didn’t want to seem rude. When he looked back at her, a smile split his lips.

Piper was momentarily taken aback.

His eyes . . . they were just . . . Dead was really the only word.

“I have company. You can join us, if you don’t mind having an audience.”

She swallowed. “More the merrier.”

And as Piper Sheridan crossed into his home, she was more and more thankful for her daddy forcing her to keep that gun on her.

It was later in the day when Mercer’s phone rang. He didn’t have any numbers programmed in this cell—he was old fashioned and actually remembered numbers—and so when he saw this one flash at him from the screen, he swallowed and set it back down.

“Who’s that?” Chief Hastings stared at him now. They were at The Hilltown Hatchery for an evening plate of waffles. Hastings sat at across from him in the booth, though Mercer, now too full to move, stared past her to where Henrietta—the owner—brought food to other tables.

Mercer cringed at the sight of food and covered his stomach.

The phone buzzed again, almost loud enough to hide the grown of his stomach, crying out in distress.

“That’s the fifth time this evening,” Hastings said, waving a hand at the phone, doing a dance across the table as it vibrated. “Just tell Darcy to drop it—”

“It’s not Andi.”

“Then who?”

“I think you lost the right to take a peek into my personal life when you kicked Darcy off the case without consulting me.” It wasn’t said unkindly, but Mercer needed her to know that no matter how many waffles she stuffed into his gut, he wasn’t simply going to be okay with her decision.

And right now, he didn’t feel okay at all. About anything.

His stomach gave another groan of distress.

Hastings sighed and dropped her napkin in her plate. “It needed to be done, whether you like it or not. And when you’re chief, you’ll see that—”

“I don’t want to be chief.”

“What?” Hastings shook her head. “Don’t be silly, of course you do.”

“No, I’ve never wanted that.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because it means more work. More responsibility.” He averted his gaze, clutching at his stomach. “I like where I’m at.”

“Bullshit,” Hastings said, none too quietly. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“I just did.”

“No, no more of this. Be mad at me all you want, my friend. But cut the shit. I want the straight skinny from you, bud, and I—”

“You want the truth, Chief? Fine. I don’t want to be chief because if I am, that means you’re not here anymore. And I don’t want to even consider a time when you’re . . .” He stopped himself. “Come on,” he said. “Our bill is paid and I think I need to lay down. I don’t feel so . . .”

But as Mercer tried to rise, something brought him back down.

His legs gave out and his eyes felt fuzzy, like he suddenly needed glasses.

“Kit? Hey, Kit, hey!”

He tried to rise and stumbled forward, bumping into the empty table beside them and knocking down a chair on his way to catch himself. Then he was on his knees, and his entire body felt like it was failing him all at once, from the tips of his fingers to his toes.

Mercer tried to rise, but the tiled floor of the Hatchery felt nice against his face.

And even as Chief Hastings called for help, shouting at Henrietta to call an ambulance—and even as his body began to convulse, and a seizure took him by the hand—one single thought, broken and disassembled, hit him like a punch to the face. Strong enough and hard enough to see stars.

Driscoll. Coffee. Darcy. Maybe.

Poison.

Somewhere, far beyond his reach, existing just at the edge of his very consciousness, a phone was buzzing.

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