The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Sixteen

SIXTEEN

Piper swore as she slammed her phone down on the dashboard of her car. She was parked up at the Bellriver Heights overlook, the only place in town that she felt as though she could actually clear her head. And breathe.

She stared out at the town below, lights steadily popping on the dark. The light had cleared the trees as early as a quarter to four, then the mountains ringing their snowy little village, and now, four hours later, they were well into the autumnal darkness that held no distinction between evening and nightfall.

It had been hours since she’d left Tanner Driscoll in his home, and still her body buzzed, as though she’d had four cups of coffee. (After years of waking up before the crack of dawn to drive to Hilltown each morning, Piper was more than familiar with the sensation.)

She needed him to answer. Why wasn’t he answering?

Piper drummed her fingers on her steering wheel, attempting to loosen some of that nervous energy. But it did nothing. She’d already gone to the station, but it was locked and empty. No one home. And she didn’t want to take this Hilltown PD. She needed a local, someone who knew the people of this town. Someone like Christian Mercer. Someone . . .

And as if in response, a truck rounded the bend in the road, and instead of passing on by, they flicked off their high-beams and slowed to a stop beside her own car. Piper assumed it was just a friendly local, come to find out if she needed help with her car, or maybe just another person, come to take in the view.

Teenagers set on necking at the overlook. Piper was a teenager once, too. She remembered.

She stared up her car, intent on driving away, when the person beside her rolled down the window of their truck—and there, staring back at her, was Anderson Darby, that new officer.

Piper cranked her window down.

“I hope you’re not here to arrest me,” she said to the officer through her window, “because you’re exactly the person I’ve been looking for.”

The young woman smiled back at her. “Likewise.”

Pennilyn Clarke and Piper Sheridan weren’t the only ones to visit Tanner Driscoll that evening. Shortly after dusk, Jeannie had returned to town with Hattie in tow and, having reconvened with that fiancé of hers at the library, soon sought out Tanner at his home.

“I don’t need a drink,” he said, slumped against the doorway of his kitchen. “I just want sleep and forget this day.”

Mark shared the feeling. After the chaos of that morning on the town common, the sudden vanishing of his wife, and then the peculiar way Old Resa had acted all afternoon, as though he were a stranger . . .

Mark shook his head. He needed a drink more than anything else.

“Dude, you were almost wrongly accused of murder today. A drink will do you some good.”

“He was wrongly accused of murder,” Jeannie corrected him. “No, you were almost wrongly arrested today. And that’s . . .” She shivered. “I think you should be around family tonight.”

Tanner’s eyes brightened. “So, you don’t think I did it?”

Mark actually laughed, shaking his head—almost like he knew something they didn’t. “You? Kill someone? I’d sooner see Pennilyn as a killer than you, my friend.”

Jeannie was a little slower to react, but she was right there with him. “I know you didn’t do this, Tanner. I know it.”

Tanner grinned a little brighter and nodded. “Let me change. I’ll meet you at your place in a few. Sound good?”

They all agreed.

The moment Tanner Driscoll’s door was shut at their backs, Jeannie looked at her fiancé. “Did you see his eyes?”

Mark nodded. “But I still don’t see what you’re talking about, Jeannie. He didn’t do this.”

Jeannie looked out at the town, the three towers of the church, the PD, and the Townhall. Only, her mind went past it all, around a few bends and down the road a ways, to Hollow Hill. To the Harrowing Tree, and the bodies it had taken.

To Kerry Greaves, just another victim claimed.

“It wasn’t what was there, Mark,” she said. “It’s what wasn’t.”

“And what’s that?”

Life.

Mercer couldn’t remember being shot, but his body told him that he had. And, having woken up in the hospital, he must have been. But who? And why? Where was the Chief? Was she hurt—

He sat up straight and was hit by a crushing wall of vertigo that threw him for a loop. His head collided with a pillow, sticky and wet with perspiration.

Slowly, he took deep, gasping breaths, trying to remember—and then he tasted it. Syrup.

Waffles.

The Hilltown Hatchery.

“You gave me quite the scare,” came a voice, and a light flicked on.

Chief Hastings lied on a small cushioned seat before the window. There was a pillow beneath her head, and it looked as though she’d been trying to sleep—only, as instantly alert as she was, Mercer didn’t buy it.

They were in a small, narrow room, almost like a peculiar looking corridor. It had a bathroom on the wall opposite the bed, which was at an angle, and a rolling chair sat beside him on the side opposite the window, where Hastings was now sitting, her head perched on her fist.

“What the hell happened to me? Was it food poisoning?”

Slowly, she let out a sigh. “You could say that.”

“What, then?”

Hastings looked at him, but it was a while before she spoke again, giving Mercer enough time to slowly ease his way into a sitting position.

“They found something, didn’t they?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Other than the fact that I’m here?” He shook his head, remembering Andi’s warning about the coffee. “Just a hunch.”

She nodded. “Trace amounts of what they’re supposing is antifreeze was found in your system.”

“Antifreeze?”

“It’s too hard a substance to exactly pinpoint after it’s been ingested,” she said. “They doctors said if you had been brought to them right after you ate whatever you did, they might have been able to find out exactly what it was that you ingested.” She ran her hands through her hair, now looking a little greasy, Mercer couldn’t help but noticed—like she hadn’t showered in a day or two. Like she hadn’t been home in a day or two. “I already sent two officers from Hilltown over to the Hatchery to investigate—”

“Call it off.” Mercer was suddenly very alert, and very aware of the world around him. “Chief, call them now. Call it off.”

She shook her head. “No. Someone tried to poison your food—”

“No, chief.” Not my food. “I . . .” He looked around for his phone, and when he asked for it, Chief Hastings held it up.

“What’s going on?”

“I need you to trust me,” he weakly said, and took his phone. “I need you to give me a moment of privacy.”

“Kit . . .”

“Please, Chief.”

She stared, momentarily struck silent, but finally nodded. “I’ll go look for some coffee. It’s late.”

And it was. After eleven at night.

Mercer checked his phone. Five calls from Piper Sheridan. His finger hovered over her number, and he considered giving her a ring when he remembered that he had a goal in mind. And he needed her—needed her now.

He scrolled down the screen until he got to the number he was after.

“Come on, Darcy. Pick up.”

Jeannie didn’t drink. At all. She may have made it seem like it, taking a shot here and there, but nothing more, and she’d had plenty of water to keep her sober. Mark, even as much as he had, was hardly even tipsy. Tanner, too. So, when Jeannie had demanded that she drive, the other two didn’t say anything against it.

She was nearly back to the center of town when something skittered out into the road. Jeannie didn’t swerve, just like she was taught growing up—better to keep on keeping on. Swerve, and you might crash and die. Swerve, and you might kill someone on the road. If something jumps out in front of you, it wasn’t fit to survive anyway.

She didn’t swerve. And that’s what made the loud bump so much worse. Because she could have swerved, and she didn’t.

Jeannie threw Tanner’s car to a stop and jumped out, his headlights illuminating the darkness ahead. Mark and Tanner were quick to do the same, Mark with his phone-flashlight out at the ready.

“A damn turkey,” Tanner said, shaking his head. “How is it that turkey-shooting is a sport around here when you can’t even leave your driveway without running one of these suckers down?”

Jeannie covered her mouth. “Jesus,” she gasped. “Mark, it’s moving. The poor thing is still alive.”

Mark was on his knees, holding onto her for stability.

“We need to put it out of its misery. There’s no saving the poor thing.” He rubbed a hand along her back. “It’s okay,” he told her, even as she trembled. “It happens all the time.”

But not to Jeannie, it didn’t.

Suddenly, she wished someone else had been driving that car.

Mark squeezed her tight one last time and said, “I’ll try to find a rock big enough to . . .” He paused. “Well, you know.”

Jeannie had to turn away to keep from crying out. What was it doing in the road? Why did it have to cross right at that point? What was God trying to tell her, if anything at all—but he had to be saying something, right?

“Don’t bother,” Tanner told Mark, and reached into the glove compartment of his car.

Jeannie didn’t realize he was holding a gun until he’d aimed it down at the poor thing’s head and had his finger on the trigger.

“Wait, Tanner—!”

And then it was done, the echo of the deed ringing out into the shadows all around.

Jeannie threw herself into Mark’s arms, and he held her tight.

She cried that night, cried like she hadn’t cried since news of Kerry’s death. Cried, not because she’d hit the turkey. Cried, not because she had to see the thing in pain, and not because she was conscious of the little critter’s own livelihood—the fact that it had a family, a home, a life to return to. She didn’t even cry because of how Tanner killed it, with a single bullet to the head.

He’d put it out of its misery. Just like he needed to.

She cried because, when Tanner pulled that trigger, he smiled. And that smile met his eyes.

And his eyes were dead.

Mark wasn’t sure what surprised him more. The way his wife clung to him when they got out of Tanner’s car and bid him goodnight, as though something as simple as roadkill had chilled her to the bone, or the fact that Harriet was waiting on their front stoop with a message.

“What is it?” Mark asked. “What’s happening?”

“Jeannie was requested at the library,” said Hattie.

“Requested?” Jeannie lifted tear stricken eyes from her husband’s coat, which she still clung to. “By who?”

Harriet parted her lips, her mouth working, even as her eyes darted between them. “I was only supposed to tell you . . .”

Mark looked physically hurt. Like she’d struck him. “What’s this about, Hattie? It’s late.”

Jeannie could tell Harriet wanted so badly to tell him, but still she kept her silence.

Mark look at his fiancé, his arm still around her. “You okay to go?”

Slowly, she nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

Mark didn’t like this one bit. Not at all. But, after another moment, he dropped his arm from his wife’s back and, with a quizzical look at Hattie, went inside, leaving the women to their secrets and their whispers.

For the first time, Mark saw his wife in a different light. And he didn’t like it.

“What’s this about?” Jeannie asked as Harriet shut the door of the library behind her and, with a swift jiggle of the key, locked it tight. Before her, at a short table generally used for children’s arts and crafts, sat Old Resa, looking paler than ever, Piper Sheridan, a blur in a town full of slow-moving colors, and Anderson Darcy.

“It’s my fault,” Andi said, rising to her feet. “I realize it’s late. But I’m the one who . . . who called this gathering here tonight.”

Jeannie shook her head and stared at the young officer, still uncertain of how to feel about her after the events of the day. “Why?”

“Because I believe I know who killed your friend.”

A low, dark, mirthless chuckle escaped Jeannie, and she slowly stepped forward. “So do I.”

“You do?”

Old Resa sat up straighter in her chair. “Did he hurt you?”

Jeannie was close to tears. “No, he didn’t.”

“What about when you went for drinks.”

Again, Jeannie shook her head.

“And in bed?”

She stared. “When was Tanner Driscoll in my bed?”

Everyone turned to look at the elderly woman. “Tanner? No, I’m talking about your fiancé, Mark. He’s the one we’re here to discuss.” She looked at Jeannie with such sadness in her eyes. “He’s the one who killed our dear Kerry Greaves.”

Out on the table, Andi’s phone began to ring.

Mercer gnawed at his lower lip and stared at his phone. She wasn’t picking up. He tried three times and still no answer. What could she possibly be doing? Sleeping? That girl didn’t sleep.

No, Andi wasn’t answering for a reason. Maybe to bait and trap him, give him a taste of the silence that he’d thrown her way. Cutting her off.

“Fine, Darcy,” he said to the silence of the room. “If I can’t get you to answer your damn cell, maybe I can get you to check your email.”

He attached a file he’d saved to his phone, just in case he needed to look at it at a moment’s notice. A file Chief Hastings deliberately told him to keep to himself.

But Christian Mercer knew something the Chief didn’t. He knew who killed Kerry Greaves.

Andi glanced at her phone, but otherwise let it buzz.

“You think Mark is the killer?” Jeannie was stunned.

“Well, of course,” Old Resa said, with a look that seemed to scream “duh.”

Andi threw up her hands, motioning for them all to stop.

“Mark Shumway is not the killer. Tanner Driscoll is. That’s why I called this meeting.”

Old Resa was standing now. “Don’t be silly. My Tanner?” She said this as thought the grown man was her little boy. Her child—and in a way, Jeannie supposed, he was.

“Mark didn’t do this. But Tanner . . .” She nodded. “But if you think so, Officer Darcy, why can’t you just arrest him?”

Andi shook her head. “I’ve been suspended because neither Chief Hastings nor Officer Mercer believe I’ve right in my hunch that Mr. Driscoll did, indeed, kill your friend. I need proof. And that’s why you’re all here.” She looked at the older woman. “When we spoke, I guess I thought we were talking about the same person.”

Old Resa said, “But Mark . . . I saw the boots. And there was a photograph of them together. It was old. I’d forgotten I’d even had it. But it was him. And the boots. They were Mark’s.”

Jeannie shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re going on about, Resa, but I think Officer Darcy is right about this.”

“Please,” she said. “Call me Andi.”

They all nodded.

Old Resa slumped into her chair. “Fine. I want to hear what you have to say. And I want to know what Piper is doing here.”

At this Piper rose, as though she were just given the floor. “After I saw your . . . Pennilyn go into Mr. Driscoll’s home, I decided to take it into my hands to . . . investigate.”

“Investigate,” echoed Jeannie.

“Indeed,” Piper said. “I got Tanner to talk to me. And although he didn’t offer me much, I did glean something of importance.”

“That being?” asked Andi.

“Tanner’s planning a trip.”

Old Resa slapped a palm to her face. “That’s it?”

“No, that’s not all,” said Piper, shooting the woman something of a scowl. “He told me he needed to leave for a while. Go out and see the world. And when I asked him if he planned on bringing his camera, he told me he would actually need it a lot where he was going.”

Old Resa still didn’t look convinced, and to be perfectly honest, neither did Jeannie or Harriet, who stood in silence, watching the small meeting unfold before her very eyes.

But Andi . . . a light flickered in the officer’s eyes.

“Did you mention anything about work? A job of some sorts?”

Piper stared. “He didn’t mention anything particular, but that’s what it sounded like.”

Andi nodded. “I—”

And just then, her phone buzzed yet again. Only, this time it was a text.

“Do you guys mind hold on a moment? I have more to add, I just—” Andi stopped when she saw who messaged her.

It was from Mercer. Brief, but substantial at the same time—she was surprised he knew how to text.

It read: You were right about the coffee. POISON. I am fine. Don’t visit. I know you haven’t dropped this case, so investigate on the downlow. I’ve attached a brief overview of what we’ve found in an email. Forgive me, Darcy. And make me proud.

Andi’s grin attracted the attention of the women in the room, but Andi ignored them as she pulled up her email. Quickly, hungrily, she read over Mercer’s notes—in which he mentioned how they’d found another SD card, and how Kerry’s phone was discovered buried at the base of the Harrowing Tree. Also, that Mercer was in the hospital, fine, but was, in fact, poisoned, just as his text said.

Andi’s heart lurched at the thought of Mercer in the hospital, but his text—telling her not to visit—kept her at a distance. Just as he liked the world, just out of arms reach.

Along with the small report, though, was an album of photographs. The ones from the SD card.

Slowly, while the woman waited, Andi rifled through them on her phone. They were all of a lake—no, it was Calvary Pond.

With a slight inward shutter, Andi couldn’t help but acknowledge the fact that these were the last photographs that Kerry must have taken. And she wondered if this was the last thing that Kerry saw before the adamant blackness of oblivion—the pond, spread out before her, calm, a mirror reflecting the azure sky, the gilded clouds that speckled the blue here and there, and her own face staring back at her.

Andi searched the water for a face, for the reflection of her killer, but saw none. Had Kerry been looking through her camera when she died? Or, had she been seeing the view before her with her own two eyes?

Then, in Mercer’s voice, she asked herself: when you look at these photos, what is the first thing that stands out to you?

She closed her eyes tight, clenched them even, absorbing the inky blackness, and then threw her lids wide, taking in the photo once more.

“Rule of thirds,” she whispered, only realizing she’d spoken aloud when the women turned to look at her.

Jeannie Fellows asked, “What’s that?”

Andi pointed to her phone. “Long story short, Mercer sent me the last photographs that were ever taken by Kerry Greaves. We know this,” she said, “because the photos match the location of where the murder really happened.

Jeannie looked struck. “You found it? Where it happened?”

“The home of Sullivan Harris,” said Andi. “He has a beach way in the back. The SD card containing the photos that Kerry took was also discovered in the yard. But we have no motive pointing Sully as our man.”

Hattie looked horrified. “What is it that you said? Rule of thirds? I’ve heard that before. Or seen it written.”

“It was the name of one of Kerry’s portfolios,” Jeannie answered for her. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

Andi said, “Kerry’s father told us his daughter only took photo using the ‘rule of thirds,’ a photography term that—I don’t know how to explain it exactly. Uses three points of focus to get the photo just right.”

Hattie nodded. “Kerry was always doing this. Even in group photos.” She grinned at Jeannie, who didn’t return the warmth. “Always using the rule of thirds.”

Andi grinned. “But she didn’t use it in any of these photos.”

“So?”

Andi looked to Piper. “You said Tanner is thinking of traveling. Bringing his camera with him on a job.”

The woman nodded.

“Well, Kerry came back to town—”

“For a job,” said Jeannie. “A travel photography job.”

“And she had competition,” Andi told them. “Not to mention, I know Tanner Driscoll was driving the car that hit me. And today, Officer Mercer was hospitalized because Tanner poisoned him.”

Old Resa was shaking her head, but it was Piper who looked breathless from the news.

“That’s why he wasn’t answering the phone? He was poisoned . . .”

Suddenly, it occurred to Andi why Tanner had tried to get them out of his home so fast when they’d gone over to interview him. So that they wouldn’t smell whatever poison he’d slipped into the spilled drink.

Jeannie nodded, not in answer, but as though she’d just come to a decision inside her own mind. Then, without another word, she pulled a gun from the waistband of her pants and set it down on the table.

“The chief took your gun? Fine. Then you’ve got mine.” Jeannie looked around. “Now, we need a plan.”

Mark sat in their bed, his back against the headboard, and he sat in waiting. In his hands was the revolver he’d bought without Jeannie’s knowing. He didn’t think she’d like the fact that he had a gun. Still, it didn’t matter now. Because now he needed it.

He sat there, eyes blank, staring at the wall.

And twirled chamber. Again. And again. And again.

He sat in waiting, looking at the door, and cursed that batty old woman for bringing by those boots.

Why—why did she have to find his boots?

Now she knew. And she so did he.

Mark knew exactly what he had to do.

He snapped the chamber of the gun into place and, after a while, slipped it beneath his pillow and went to bed.

Even in sleep, he waited.

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