The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Eighteen

EIGHTEEN

Chief Hastings found Mercer exactly where she thought she would find him, out on Hollow Hill, standing in the snow. It was a light dusting, bright in the midday sunshine, but already Kit’s shoulders were covered in at least half-an-inch. He’d been there a while.

“Thought I’d find you here.”

Mercer didn’t move, didn’t turn. Just stood there, feet planted firmly, and stared—stared, first, at that spot in the grass where the body of Kerry Greaves had been found, and then up at the Harrowing Tree, standing watch—

Or was it?

“I was hoping I’d find her here.”

“It’s been days, Kit. If Anderson Darcy is gone it’s because she left—

“You still believe that, don’t you? Still believe that she was wrong.”

Hastings swallowed, shoving her hands deep into her coat pockets for warmth. “I don’t believe this conspiracy she’s got you set on, no. Tanner Driscoll has been a citizen of Bellriver for as long as I can remember. And never once has he ever—”

“That’s not the point, and you know it.”

“No facts. No proof. No reason—”

“He burned my house down, Chief.” And Mercer looked at her. “Andi warned me. Warned us. Said that he was going to try to pick us off, one by. And he has. First with the car that hit Andi. Then with the newspaper article about you. And then the fire at my house. You and I both know I was supposed to be home when it happened. But I was stubborn.”

And because of it you’re alive. She didn’t say this.

“That day Andi and I interviewed Tanner Driscoll, he put something in our drinks, Chief. Andi didn’t drink hers, and she knocked mine out of my hand before I could finish mine. She knew. And if she hadn’t been there, if she hadn’t done that, I would be dead.”

“Absurd.”

“It’s not.” He ground his teeth. “And now Andi’s gone missing, right after coming back. What’s that about?”

“Maybe it was too much for her.”

“You and I both know that’s not true.”

Hastings opened her mouth and shut it. “I don’t know, Kit. I honestly don’t know. But don’t you think that if Tanner Driscoll had done those things. Hit Andi with his car. Wrote that article. Burned down your house. Even—what?—kidnapped Darcy. That he’d still be here in town?”

Mercer shook his head. “Why won’t you see it?”

“Because there’s not enough light to see by.”

“Tanner Driscoll did this.”

“And until you have proof, I say he didn’t.”

Mercer turned, already for his car.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to find that proof. And then I’m going to find Andi.”

Jeannie Fellows was going out of her mind. Three days. It had been three damn days since their meeting in the library, and Officer Anderson Darcy was nowhere to be found. AWOL, the chief said. Even Officer Mercer didn’t know where she was.

And there was a killer walking in their midst. Acting like one of them.

And she—

“Why are you pacing?” Mark asked. “Is everything alright?”

Everything was not alright.

“Fine,” she lied, fluttering her lashes. “I just . . .” Jeannie swallowed.

If Andi was missing, that could mean one of two things. That she had left; that this was too much; that she couldn’t stand the danger—which Jeannie didn’t buy for even a second. Which left the only other option. Kerry Greaves’ killer has her somewhere.

She shifted on her feet and faced her future husband. “I need to take a trip.”

“A trip? Where?”

“Anywhere,” she said. “A vacation—I need a vacation. I need to get away from this town, from . . . From Kerry. The thought of her.” She loosened a deep breath. “And I need to do this alone.”

Mark was on his feet, standing before her.

He didn’t want her to go. There were so many reasons why he didn’t want to see her leave—one of which was the fact that he feared he might never see her again; that this vacation of hers might never end. But if this was something she needed to do . . . if she needed to get away . . .

Mark suddenly remembered the gun under his pillow. Remembered he had a job to do.

“Then I think you should go, Jeannie.” He took a moment to look around, as though deep in thought, and then nodded. “If it will help with moving on. With forgetting Kerry, then I think you should.”

Jeannie was somewhat stunned by his response, but it was the words forgetting Kerry that struck her the most. That was the last thing she wanted—to forget. To simply walk away and let go of the past. The past was happy, sure, in a way that the present wasn’t. But walking away from that happiness, simply to try to make things better now . . . She didn’t want to forget. Ever. Any of it.

Jeannie nodded. “I’m gonna go talk to Hattie. Tell her I’m leaving. Will you be okay for dinner?”

Mark said he was, and he watched her leave. Watched the door shut.

And he wondered if he would lose her in the end. Because of what he was going to do next.

He feared he would. But it didn’t change anything.

Jeannie didn’t go to Hattie’s. No, if Andi was missing, then that meant Jeannie had to take matters into her own hands. Which also meant moving forward with the plan they’d discussed. Even if they hadn’t come to a consensus on the idea—Piper wasn’t here right now, and neither were Old Resa and Andi, for that matter. So, it was her way or the highway.

She only hoped it would work. Because if it didn’t . . .

Jeannie dialed the phone and put it in her pocket.

“Jeannie?” Tanner looked almost surprised to see her. Behind him, a suitcase was sitting on the couch.

“Going somewhere?”

Slowly, he nodded. “I just need to get away. Everything that’s been happening in this town lately . . .” Tanner looked sad. “It doesn’t really feel like Bellriver anymore.”

She knew what he meant. Everything had changed—and she thought it had started with Kerry’s sudden death. But she realized now that things had changed long before that. Years before.

“I . . .”

“Jeannie, you’re crying.”

“He did it,” she said. “He . . . he killed Kerry.”

Tanner, his face screwed up into a look of utter confusion, wrapped her in his arms. “I don’t understand. Who? Who killed Kerry?”

“Mark. I found a gun under his pillow. And he smelled like fire when he got into bed last night.” She clutched Tanner close, holding on for dear life. “I need to get out of here. And I need you to take me with you.”

He was nodding, over and over again, telling her to hush, to breathe, just breathe. And then he said, “P.J.’s flying me out of here later this afternoon. But I don’t know when I’ll be coming back—”

“Then we won’t.” She looked at him now, her hands on his face, holding him so that his eyes were on hers and nowhere else. “We’ll runaway from here. For good. Leave it all behind. Mark and I weren’t married—there’s nothing holding me here.” She tried for a smile, but it was sad. “Today. We’ll leave on P.J.’s plane, and that’ll be that.”

And for the first time, Tanner’s eyes looked . . . alive.

He nodded again. “I have an errand to run. Someone I have to say goodbye to. And then we’ll go?” At Jeannie’s smile, Tanner hugged her to him. “The plane will take off from Calvary Pond.”

He loosened a breath. “Who would have thought, someone we loved so dearly, could do something so . . . awful?”

Jeannie looked up into his eyes. “We all have a bunker full of secrets, Tanner. Some are just darker than others.”

Hattie looked at Donnie as the call dropped, and Jeannie’s voice faded into nothing.

“Did she just say Bunker full of secrets?” Donnie asked, on another break from the grill. “What the hell was that?”

“Just a butt dial, I suppose . . .” Hattie said.

Donnie shook his head. “Come on,” he told her. “Spill it.”

“Spill . . .what?”

“You are the worst liar I’ve ever met, Hattie. And butt dial or not, I heard what was just said. Jeannie’s running away with Tanner. And now, supposedly, Mark is the killer?” He shook his head. “This doesn’t make any sense—”

“Bunker.” Harriet’s eyes looked distant, almost absent.

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course.”

“Then why do you keep mouthing the word bunker?”

She shook her head. “Didn’t Mark’s father have an old bunker somewhere near by? A place in the woods, over by Fernskeep Hill?”

Donnie nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“If I drive, do you think you can show me where it is?”

“He might not, but I sure can.” They both turned to find Pennilyn standing in the doorway with Old Resa at her side. “What’s this about?”

Harriet shook her head. “No time. Everyone get in my van. We’re going for a ride—”

Harriet.”

She was hardly out the door, her three friends at her back, when Officer Christian Mercer strode into view, standing at the bottom of the steps leading up to the library.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I have to go. We have to go—”

“I need your help to find Andi.” He looked lost. Almost . . . was that fear written all across his face? “I don’t know who else to turn to.”

A small smile started across Hattie’s face. “You’re in luck, Officer Mercer. I think I may have a lead on that front.”

To say that it was dark was the understatement of the century. Cavernous was it was—gaping, like a mouth, devouring all things; a darkness so severe, a single speck of light was not to be found in existence.

Andi didn’t know how long she had been down there. Too long, coming in and out of consciousness, discerning one from the other only by the throbbing at the front of her skull. Like fire where she allowed her fingers to grace her scalp, sticky with blood.

A tremor raked her body to its very core, shuddering through her with enough intensity to leave her sprawled out across the hard concrete. The pain in her head sent white-hot fireworks sparking into the night, and for a while, it was all she could do to watch them work, igniting the world around her, until she was carried off into blissful sleep.

She awoke feverish and sweaty what must have been a day later, maybe more. No amount of blinking would alleviate the dark. It was like all living light had deteriorated in a single instant, and Andi hadn’t even been awake to see it happen.

In flashes, she recalled the masked figure in her truck. The gun on her head. Pulling off into the woods. And walking—walking forever. Then agony, straight fire to the head, and nothing after that. Nothing but this darkness.

And not for the first time, Andi had to strain to keep that single, haunting, nausea-inducing question out of her mind—a devastating thought that never, so long as she’d been in this fateful dark, failed to bring her to tears. Yet it slipped through the gaps in her feeble defenses, as it had time and again.

What if it’s not actually dark?

A dull ache reverberated through her, like a throbbing echo, and Andi had to shrink back against the nearest wall for support as she vomited, heaving into oblivion.

She wiped at her face and collapsed onto her side, letting the coolness of the floor seep into her skin.

Am I blind?

Her fingers, ignoring every warning signal her body threw her, inched their way up her matted hair to her wound, as though of their own curiosity-driven volition.

Andi winced and swore, fighting back the next bout of vertigo roiling through her, cresting and crashing in waves.

She’d been hit on the right side of her skull, towards the front. The exact same spot the killer had bludgeoned Kerry Greaves to death. Andi felt close, as though maybe he’d wanted to do the same—and maybe he wanted to leave her with enough lifeblood to allow her to suffer.

It was working.

When she’d had just about enough rest from the harrowing thoughts rifling through her battered brain, Andi decided to make a list of what she knew. Maybe somehow it could get her out of this situation.

She was alone. It was dark. Cold. It smelled . . . dank. Almost like a cellar, but different. And when she stood up, the walls and the ceiling were smooth. Cavernous was the word she continued to return to; the space stretched on for what seemed to Andi, in her limited state, like leagues, spreading out before her. When she’d garnered enough strength to stumble into the empty air, she’d discovered the space wasn’t as empty as it seemed—and it didn’t go on forever. A maze of shelves filled the place—stock full of old junk—ending in a wall of smooth stone or concrete.

This was what she knew. She was trapped. She was in pain. She needed a way out. So far as she had been able to tell, there were no doors or windows, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some kind of hatch in the ceiling.

That’s what she needed: a door. And a way to get to it.

A ladder.

The thought blanched across her vision like white lightning, spreading and building, until Andi was working her way to her feet. She used the wall as a crutch, flattening herself against it, looking for some way up—but up into what?

A way out? Or simply a way deeper into whatever this was?

But what was it? A storage unit?

After Andi had found the strength—and the courage—to stand and walk around, she found that, if it was indeed a storage unit, it was a hell of a lot bigger than any she’d ever seen before.

She felt her hand along one shelf, and—

Teeth. She felt teeth, and instantly tore her hand away, stumbling backward, simply to trip over her own feet and land in a pile of discarded . . . bone?

It took everything for her not to scream. And it was only as she fought to her feet, pushing against darkness and the absence all around her that she realized what this was.

A hunting bunker.

The teeth, the bones—no, not bones. Antlers.

Her hammering heart began to slow.

And for three days, devoid of water and food, she’d remained locked in the night, learning where the shelves went, learning where the door was—simply learning.

Until now, when a flood of both relief and instantaneous terror flattened Anderson against the nearest shelf as a burst of light ignited from somewhere over head.

It was coming from back over her shoulder, where a hatch had opened in the ceiling.

Light—which meant she wasn’t blind.

And which also meant she was no longer alone.

The hatch squeaked shut and darkness filled the space.

On instinct, Andi reached for her gun—only to find it gone. That’s when she remembered the chief hadn’t given it back, and Andi cursed silently in the dark.

“No one is looking for you, you know.”

Andi did know. If, after three days, still no one had found her, then either they weren’t looking, or she was hidden where no one would even think to consider.

She heard feet slapping against the metal rungs of the ladder leading down from the latch, and then a sudden clamor as feet hit the floor. And then he was walking, getting closer, moving in the shadows.

Andi, weak as she felt, was on the move as well. She knew these shelves. Knew where to go, where to move. And the lack of sight had bettered her hearing. Now, if only she could make it to the ladder.

But would he hear her climbing?

Would the door even be unlocked?

Panic roiled deep within her, but she kept it at bay, slowly breathing. Andi used the shelves to propel her forward, moving slow enough that he couldn’t hear her, but fast enough that wherever his footsteps landed, she was already several feet away.

And she’d been given the advantage of time. She knew this bunker.

But then it occurred to her—he’d had time to learn it, too.

Beads of sweat formed at her temple and along her arms, but her mind was on one thing, and one thing only. Moving.

Surviving.

“I’ve really no business being down here, Anderson Darcy,” he said. “But I get this kick out of it, you know? The fact that you were the only one really looking for me. Meanwhile, your fellow officers are running in circles. And yet they’re up there. And you’re down here.”

Andi knew this was a bad idea, but she opened her mouth, and as dry as her tongue felt—like sand in her mouth—she managed to say, “Why did you bring me here?”

“Why? Because,” he said. “You were getting close. And I was really getting sick of waiting.”

Suddenly, Andi heard the click of a gun in the dark, and she froze.

“I have to get back. I’m afraid this isn’t my only task today. So, though I’d very much would like to keep you down here, like my own little pet—”

Suddenly, his phone rang.

He swore, and while Andi moved to the far side of the bunker, ducking low, silence rang out between the cries of his cellphone.

“I have to go,” he said. “My future wife awaits. So, saved by the bell, I suppose.” A low chuckle escaped him, and Andi heard him retreat towards the ladder on the wall. “Though, it would be a perfectly good waste of a bullet if I didn’t use it . . .”

Andi was nearly too late.

She threw herself to the side, flattening her body against the cold floor, but as she fell, so did one of the shelves, and with it, another, crashing down like dominoes as the world exploded in a fiery burst of light and a crescendo of sound—before dropping off into nothingness.

Andi’s ears rang. The shot had been deafening.

But somewhere above her, there came another flare of light, and the hatch had closed behind Kerry Greaves’ killer, sealing her in.

Chief Hastings remained standing out at Hollow Hill long after Mercer had gone back into town, simply staring up at the Harrowing Tree and the body beneath its roots. Ben stood beside her, as he so often did, but he was quiet today, just as she was—and she allowed herself to wonder, for a brief moment, if he was in mourning.

“Aren’t you cold?” he later asked her.

She nodded. “A bit. But I’m used to it.” Hastings looked at her husband. “What about you?”

“Cold? Never,” he said, with a small smile. “But the dead rarely are, I suppose. Maybe at first. But not after. Not anymore.”

She smiled. “I’m never going to get used to this, you know.”

“Oh, but you will, you just don’t know it yet.” He reached out and took her hand. “After all, this isn’t the first time you’ve had to face this.

He was right. It wasn’t.

And her eyes went to the tree, skeletal and beautiful, now with snow.

“Do you think of her?”

“I don’t have to,” said Ben. “I just . . . know.”

Lizzie Hastings nodded. “I wish I could see her. And know.”

“And you will.”

But she didn’t know this to be true.

“Maybe,” she said, trying to sound hopeful and coming up short. “Maybe—”

The sound of her phone going off brought her back to the present. Only, it was a quick minute before she realized it wasn’t her phone, but Kerry’s. She still had it on her.

It was an email notification from an unknown sender. When Hastings typed in the code, she saw it was a forward.

Wander Light Travel Solutions, read the subject line. It looked like some sort of job posting, and it occurred to her as her eyes wandered down the page, that it was the job that Kerry had come back to Bellriver for.

But there, in the body of the email, was a single message.

Too Late.

And, as Hastings read further, she understood why.

She saw the name at the bottom.

Ben looked over her shoulder. “What is it, dear? Mercer get in another tizzy with the reverend?”

His wife shook her head. “No,” she told him. “I know who killed Kerry.”

Donnie ran across the town common and didn’t stop until he was in front of Jeannie’s and Mark’s. To his relief, Mark was sitting out on the front stoop, pulling on his boots when he came to a stop, panting.

“Everything alright, Donnie-boy?” he asked.

Only, Donnie froze when he saw what Mark was holding.

Mark clutched the gun tighter in his trembling hand. He didn’t even try to hide it.

“What’s that?”

“A pack of cigs, what does it look like, Donnie? It’s a gun.”

“Why?”

“Why is it a gun?”

“No,” his friend asked. “Why do you have it?”

“Because I intend on using it.”

Mark set the weapon down to put on his boots, only they wouldn’t fit. They were too small.

Donnie took a step back.

“Not on you, Donnie-boy. On Tanner.”

“Tanner?”

“He’s the killer. He’s the one who did this.” Mark shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe it, but . . . it all adds up. And I saw him set that officer’s house on fire. I was the one who called for help. I watched him do it.”

Donnie ran his hands over his face.

“Damn,” Mark cursed, throwing them down.

“What’s the matter?” Donnie asked, only his eyes were still on the gun.

“These aren’t my boots. I just remembered, I left mine upstairs.”

“Then whose are these?”

“Tanner’s,” said Mark. “We have the same ones. Only, he’s got small feet,” he joked, and then was struck by a sudden memory of Tanner crossing the snowy town common in his slippers.

At the sudden lack of color in Donnie’s face, he stopped himself. “What’s wrong, Donnie-boy?”

“Jeannie,” he said, hardly more than a whisper.

Mark was on his feet. “What is it? Where is she?”

“She’s about to get on a plane. With Tanner. They’re quitting town.” His eyes were back on the gun. “Are you going to kill him?”

Mark looked undecided but didn’t answer. “I figured it out a few nights ago. But God, Jeannie. I didn’t think she would be stupid enough to—”

“There’s more.”

“More?”

“Jeannie thinks you did it,” Donnie said. “She’s running.”

Mark was already headed for the drive.

“Where are you going?”

“To save my fiancé.”

“Without shoes?”

Jeannie feigned a smile as she looked up into Tanner’s face. He was driving fast, speeding down the road towards Calvary Pond. That’s where he said P.J. was waiting with his plane. It wouldn’t get them far, but far enough—and then they could take a train from there. Go anywhere.

“Are you still sure you want to do this?” he asked.

Jeannie nodded. “With you, I’ll go anywhere.”

“Here!” Pennilyn shouted, bending over to catch her breath. The others were leagues behind, but when Mercer finally caught up to the elderly woman, she was standing before a hatch in the ground with a door carved out of the center. With a lock dangling down.

“You really think she’s down there?”

Pennilyn scowled. “For her sake, Officer, I pray that she is.”

He didn’t respond to this, but instead hollered back to Hattie, who was only now cresting the rise in the wooded valley. “Harriet, I’m going to need those bolt cutters.”

She ran and threw them to him, cutting off those last few feet before dropping to her knees, panting.

Mercer caught them and fit them to the lock. It was weak and broke fairly easily. He pulled his gun—knowing perfectly well that, had the killer locked the hatch, then they weren’t down there; but he feared what might lay in the dark, both alive and waiting—and motioned for the others to stand back.

In a silent prayer, he whispered, Come on, Andi.

And then he pulled the door open—

Andi flew into the light, leaping straight through the hatch and tackled the silhouette that stood, gun at the ready, before the blinding blaze of gold. She rode him to the ground, unaware of the other shadows gathering now, and despite the weakness of her body—her hunger, her thirst—she had enough strength to grip the set of shears she’d found upon one of the shelves below.

Tenaciously clenched between fingers of stone, she drove them down now in an arch, a blur of quicksilver cutting the air, and plunged them into the face of—

And stopped.

The rusty set of shears froze half-an-inch above Mercer’s temple, quivering in her hand as her mind wrapped around the idea that it was him, that it wasn’t the killer, that she was saved—that someone had been looking for her, that someone had found her.

Every fiber of her being held her back, held her still. Until she collapsed.

Her face collided with his chest, which was slick and sticky with sweat, and the shears tumbled off into the snow. Andi laughed against him, a reverberation that rattled Mercer to the very core, and before she could even close her eyes against the light, he had his arms curled around her, hugging her to him.

Holding on, as much for her sake as for his own.

“You came,” she sobbed with a hiccup of laughter, gasping for breath. “You found me.”

And in her ear, just a whisper, he said, “I always seem to.”

She turned her head up at him, holding on for dear life, skin to skin. Her eyes, like still water on a hot day, sparkled with a new kind of energy. One, Mercer would forever remember, that held a darkness so severe, and yet despite the harrowing within, the terror and the agony, a persistence unlike any other radiated from within.

Persistence, yes. And something else—something stronger. A deliberate unwillingness to stop fighting.

In a whisper of a breath, she lifted her head just enough that her face was level with his own, and Andi said, “It was Tanner Driscoll.”

Mercer’s head slanted to the side, and his eyes fell once more on the shears, crushing the short tufts of grass poking through the thin layer of snow. When he blinked, he saw that car that’d thrown Andi into the air. He felt that fear as she came crashing back down. And just the same, an anger and a sadness—a hurt like any other—distilled any doubts he’d harbored about who killed Kerry Greaves as he remembered the article in the paper. And the fire that stole his home.

With Andi in his arms, he sat forward, and a look of fear held her eyes on his. A look that told him she thought herself still alone in the idea of Driscoll being the killer. But she wasn’t.

“I hope you don’t think they’re going to make you a detective, Darby,” he murmured, his lips rounding at the edges. “You may have been right this time—”

Her eyes seemed to fracture then, any and all signs of fear and hopelessness shifting like the old panes in a casement window, falling away to reveal the home beyond, the light within, and the hope at its very center.

“Come on, Darcy,” he said, taking her hand in his own. “Before the day’s out, we’re going to catch a killer.”

Back at the car, Mercer told Hattie that she needed to get them to the hospital. But just the word halted Andi, exhausted as she was, in her tracks.

“We can’t go to the hospital. We have to go after them.”

Hattie, despite her dislike of throwing caution to the wind, actually agreed. “She’s right. Jeannie is getting on a plane with Tanner Driscoll as we speak. If we’re going to stop them, we have to go now. Before it’s too late—”

“I’ll send the chief.”

“No, Mercer,” Andi said. “It has to be us. We have to do this. Now. We have to stop them.”

And, stubborn as he was, there was no one quite as stubborn as Anderson Darcy.

“I’ll drive,” Mercer said. “But where am I heading?”

Too late.

The words hit Chief Hasting as she slowly pulled out onto the main road, just in time to see Tanner Driscoll’s car speed past, with a woman in the passenger’s seat.

A finger of nausea roiled in her belly at the thought of driving faster than ten miles-per-hour, and every time she even moved her foot to the gas pedal, she saw Ben, slowly turning towards her.

Saw the truck coming barreling towards them. Saw the world go dark.

And she was hit by a bought of dizziness.

Too late.

Again, those words rang in her head, flashed in front of her eyes. She could almost taste them; the way you could taste a season, a memory. A mistake. And these words tasted like metal, pooling at the back of her throat.

“No,” she panted, and suddenly Ben was in the seat beside her.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing.” She wiped at the sweat sluicing down her forehead, gathering along the bridge of her nose.

Ben smirked. “It looks like you’re letting him get away.”

Now the car wasn’t moving at all, and yet—everything was spinning.

“Lizzie.” His voice was like an odd vibration, gathering in the space beside her, and yet when he placed his hand on hers, pressing it into the wheel, she felt it grow inside of her. Her own name, growing, blooming as if nurtured over time; and when he reached out his other hand, fingers snagging on her chin, he lured her gaze back to his and simply smiled.

A flicker in the atmosphere had him there one moment and gone the next, back again before she could even blink.

“You don’t have to do this, Lizzie. You have to understand, not everything is going to fall together. You did it. You solved it. Now it’s time to—”

“No, I didn’t.”

“What?”

“I didn’t solve it. I wasn’t even close.” Her vision bobbed like a fishing lure, sinking low, distorting the world, and then buoying back up into the light. She gripped the wheel tight, loosening a shuddering breath. “I have been one step behind him the entire time. And Andi . . . God, Ben, what have I done? How did I not see it?”

“Because maybe this wasn’t your case to solve.” He squeezed her hand and it was the first time that she felt only air, lightly brushing the flesh of her fingers, less ethereal and more . . . nonexistent.

Doubt slid its touch along her spine, and she strained to keep still.

“That just sounds like an excuse.”

“And maybe it is,” Ben said. “Or maybe it’s the only answer. The only reason why the great Lizzie Hastings didn’t see the killer standing right in front of her.” He drew her head down and pressed his own against hers. “You can’t hold onto this like you’ve been holding onto everything else. You can’t harbor this mistake like it’s a part of you.”

She stiffened in his grasp—if you could call it that.

“It is a part of me.”

“I know,” he said. “Just like the accident. Just like everything bad that has come before. It’s everything, my love,” Ben told her, “that you need to cut loose.”

Lizzie’s weak frame was jostled by her own mirthless laugh. “Don’t you think if I could do that, I’d be here? Talking to . . . Unable to even drive?” Slowly, reluctantly, she drew her eyes back up to his, and for a split moment, she swore she could see through him. Like he wasn’t even really there.

“Don’t you think if I could cut away my pain, that I wouldn’t have done so long ago?” She shook her head and had to grip the wheel to keep herself from falling apart. “I don’t want to forget you—”

“No one is asking you to. I’m just asking you to let go of what’s been done to me. To us.” He reached out and put his hand on hers. Air, cool, like a breath from a stranger’s lungs. “You want to know how to make me real, Lizzie? Put my death in the past, and just hold onto me now.”

She was shaking her head. “I don’t think I can do that.”

“You don’t have a choice, my love.”

And slowly, slowly, the vision of her husband on the seat beside her began to flicker and fade. Like a phantom vanishing into nothing.

“I . . . I can’t do this!”

“You have to, Lizzie. Did you see that woman in the car? Kerry may have been the first to die, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be the last. You have to let go of this fear. You have to forget—”

“How?”

But he flickered, flickered. Flickered, and went out.

Gone. Just like that.

And as she lifted her head, she saw someone else staring back at her. Through the window, over in the grass of the town common, a toddler teetering about, smiling up at the world, at the sun, and at the mother that never really had the chance to know what it was like to love and be loved by something so small.

Lizzie Hastings stared out at the ghost of the daughter she’d buried beneath the Harrowing Tree, and in a flash, her foot was on the accelerator, and she felt the squeeze of Ben’s hand on hers as her car shot forward into the dust.

Too late, came that voice inside.

Keep looking, it said.

But Lizzie Hastings was done looking. And she would not be too late.

“I’m coming,” Hastings said. And then again, to herself. “I’m coming.”

Tanner Driscoll punched the gas and sped further into the wilderness, forcing Jeannie to grab the handrail on the ceiling. Dirt hurtled itself into the air, whipping in torrents behind them, and more than once did Jeannie suspect they’d crash long before they got to where they were going.

“What are you doing? Why are we going so fast?” She said this more out of necessity than anything else—she knew who was after them. But an unsuspecting Jeannie Fellows wouldn’t. So, she played the fool. Wore the mask. And in the hollow of her back, pressed tight into the waistband of her pants, she could feel the coolness of her gun.

Kerry may not have seen it coming. But she wasn’t Kerry.

“We have company,” Tanner explained, sparing a glance in the rearview mirror.

Jeannie looked over her shoulder. Chief Hastings was behind them, her lights flashing, and she wasn’t slowly down.

“I’m afraid the jig is up,” Tanner said, and from within the inside of his coat, he pulled a gun and he pressed it the side of Jeannie’s head, just as he had done with Andi. “You may have wanted to come with me, Jeannie dear,” he said, dead eyes drinking her in, “but now you really don’t have a choice.”

If she didn’t think for even the slightest moment that he wouldn’t pull that trigger without a second thought, she would have pulled her gun. But Jeannie knew what he was capable of. So, she sat in her seat, frozen to the spot—not out of fear. No, not entirely. But out of necessity as she shut herself down, blocked out all her thoughts. All save for those that sought out an opportunity to strike. Those looking for an opening to present itself.

“Unto the breach,” she whispered, and stared straight ahead at the coming light.

Change of plans.

“I never took you for a Shakespearian,” Tanner said, squinting.

Slowly, she turned against the gun so that now it was trained on her temple. Blinking back her terror, she stared down the barrel and tried for her kindest of smiles, swallowing the bile that threatened to crest the back of her throat.

“And to think I thought you knew me, Tanner Driscoll.” She placed her hand on his knee and fought to keep her face from cringing. “I think things are about to change for you, you know that?”

“Do you now?”

Jeannie Fellows bit back her panic, going so far as to sit on her hands to keep them from noticeably trembling.

“I do. Really, Tanner. I do.”

Her own gun gnawed at the hollow of her spine as the one trained on her head eased back its bite.

Alright, Jeannie thought, breathing through her teeth. Let’s try this again.

Mark pulled into the dirt parking lot of Cavalry Pond’s private beach mere moments before Mercer, driving Hattie’s car, slid into place behind them. The chief’s car was there, her door open, and so was Tanner Driscoll’s. Both his driver’s side and his passenger’s side door was open—and Mercer saw why.

“Get back in your car!” he shouted at a barefoot Mark Shumway.

Andi, still clutching the bottle of water Old Resa had forced into her hands, dropped it now and stood beside her fellow officer.

“Let us handle this,” she said. But her eyes weren’t on Mark, they were on the water, and the dock that stretched out towards a sun-bright, yellow puddle-jumper. And there, out on the dock that stretched deep into the great blue pond, was Tanner Driscoll, standing with a gun pressed to the side of Jeannie Fellow’s head.

And Chief Hastings was there, hands up, trying to talk him down off the ledge.

“She’s my fiancé, damnit!” Mark shouted.

“And that’s why you need to let us do this!” Mercer shouted back.

Andi thought Mark was going to fight him, but he stayed where he was, unmoving. The rest of the group remained in both cars.

Mercer and Andi hurried to the beach, but they didn’t dare step in the direction of the dock. It wasn’t wide enough or three, and there was no way Mercer was putting Andi in the line of fire.

“You don’t have to do this, Tanner,” Chief Hastings said. “Just let Jeannie go and we can talk about this—”

“There’s nothing to talk about, I’m afraid,” he said. And then, looking past the chief, he grinned at a new arrival to the beach. “Sorry, P.J. I’m gonna need to borrow your plane. You can get it back when I’m done.”

Andi turned to find the old man she’d previously met at the Depot standing in the parking lot.

“Get in that car!” Mercer shouted, and pointed towards Mark’s vehicle, and P.J. did as he was asked.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Hastings said.

Tanner smiled—but his eyes were dead. Long dead.

Too late, chief. But so close.”

Chief Hastings felt those words reverberate through her like a fist to the gut.

Tanner wrenched Jeannie back towards the plane, keeping her behind him, using her as a shield.

“Why?” It sounded so simple, so . . . childlike, Hastings later thought.

The wind whipped at his hair as that crevice of a smile split his face even wider, like the stitching of a pincushion snapping wide, and he said, “She stood between me and everything else. Everything I needed.”

“She was your competition,” said the chief. “The one thing standing in the way of a job that would let you travel. See the world.” And then, standing there on the dock, it came to her, clear as day. “You’re family.”

Tanner’s face seemed to fall for a moment.

“With this job, you’d have the money and the means to leave the country. Find your wife. Your kids.” She shook her head, absently swiping at the blond ringlets that arched across her face from the wind. “But the Sweetwater’s? The statue. Planting the SD card at Sullivan Harris’s home. Killing Kerry there. What was it all for?”

“I wanted to see how many birds I could kill with a single stone,” he said, still grinning. “You know Sully. What he’s done. He’s a criminal. And that Indian slut of his—I thought it would be better for everyone, better for Bellriver, if I took them off the map.” He looked past her, to where Andi and Mercer stood at the ready. “And it was fun. Watching you scramble.”

Suddenly, it was coming to life around her. She saw Kerry at Sully’s place, taking pictures—a part of the hideous agreement they struck up. She walks alone down to the pond. She doesn’t know someone was there, watching her, taking pictures of his own. So, she went to the water’s edge, and her competition followed.

Hasting’s face was a blank slate when she said, “And Hollow Hill? Why there? Why not simply leave the body where it was?”

“You know that tree’s history,” he told her. “The Harrowing Tree needs to come down. It does,” he said, nodding. “And what better way then for another body to wind up at its roots.”

She stilled. Remembering another body, the one of her infant daughter’s.

Darcy had been right.

“That’s a lot of birds,” she said.

Tanner bit his lip, tugging Jeannie back against him. “And it only took a single stone.”

Hastings murmured, “Like a game of dominoes.”

“All shall fall.”

“But she didn’t want the job.”

This did not come from Chief Hastings, but Andi Darcy, standing there on the beach. Speaking loudly, for all to hear. But mostly for Tanner. “Kerry didn’t want the job. That’s what’s odd about the photos we found. They weren’t like her others—they weren’t good. Just pictures. No effort in them.” No rule of thirds, she didn’t say. “When she came back to Bellriver, maybe that’s what she was after. But then she got to know Jeannie. And Mark. And all the others. She became a part of this town again.” She squinted against the light, the wind. And met Tanner’s sudden grimace with one of her own. “You would have won. Would have gotten that job. But you killed Kerry Greaves, Tanner. And now you’re never going to get the ending you’ve been looking so forward to.”

Tanner was trembling now. Andi couldn’t see it, but Hastings could. And it was making him angry—the fact that she could see it, see his weakness. Plain and in the open.

And he trained his gun on her.

Hastings did not flinch. Death did not bring her the same fear it might have long ago; she knew what was waiting for her. What was on the other side.

“Wait!” Jeannie shouted, and Tanner stopped. Froze.

Only, she wasn’t talking to him, but to the chief—to Andi and Mercer beyond her.

“Just give us a second,” she said, and turned in Tanner’s grip. He moved the gun back to her head, but Jeannie felt the tension ease when she looked up into his eyes. She wasn’t afraid; Tanner was her friend. He wouldn’t shoot. He wouldn’t.

Only, as Tanner shifted, Andi—even from the beach—saw the tattoo that marked his forearm. The one she’d seen what felt like years ago, only she hadn’t been able to make it out. The one he’d tried to cover.

An owl. It was a damn owl.

Andi cursed herself for not putting those dots together—for not seeing him for who he was soon enough.

“I want to go with you, Tanner,” she said. “But I need to do something, first. I need . . .” She looked back at Mark, who stood there on the beach, watching everything. “I need Mark to know that it was never him. That, all this time, we’ve been pretending. That . . .” She looked up at Tanner one last time, and without a moment’s hesitation, she reached up and drew him down into a kiss.

And that’s when Jeannie Fellows slapped the gun out of his hand, where it clattered to the dock and plopped into the water.

Horror blanched its way across Tanner’s face. He had another gun, though. Jeannie had felt it when he’d held her to him. Now, as he wrenched Jeannie back towards him, he reached for it—”

“Move and I’ll shoot!” exclaimed the chief. “Move even an inch, Tanner Driscoll,” she said, softer now, but still loud enough for her voice to carry. “And I will kill you.”

Tanner was smiling, still backing towards the plane, even as Chief Hastings inched closer.

And still, Tanner’s hand descended towards the gun hooked into the waistband of his trousers.

“Do it, and you know I’ll have to shoot. You’re not giving me any other option, Tanner. Don’t do this. For your sake, and Jeannie’s. Don’t do this.”

Tanner’s smile split into a moment of decision making, and then—when that decision was made, he said, “Do what you must, Chief. The slut’s no good to me anyway.” And he thrust Jeannie forward, pulling out his gun.

A shot split the air.

Everyone, it seemed, moved in slow motion as they turned and looked first at Mercer, standing there on the shore—but his hands were empty, and so was the holster on his hip. But standing right beside him was Andi. She had his own gun at the ready.

Even Tanner Driscoll stared, his eyes wide, his mouth open, moving, as if searching for the words that weren’t there. And never again would be.

A rose of blood bloomed there in the center of his chest, and Tanner pried at it, almost as though he could simply pull out the bullet and continue, like it never happened.

But then Anderson Darcy fired off another shot, and as Tanner Driscoll crumpled, Jeannie watched his eyes—watched as they fixated onto her, and like his own life was flashing before her eyes, she saw everything.

She saw Tanner Driscoll, their friend. Saw him taking pictures, saw him happy with his children, saw him at the fair, at the beach, on the town common, saw him reading in the sunlight, saw him laughing and loving and dreaming.

She stopped it. Stopped remembering. And only saw Kerry Greaves’ face staring back at her.

Then Jeannie brought up her foot, and with a powerful kick sent to his chest, she shoved Kerry’s killer into the water.

Back on the beach, Andi teetered sideways and fell into Christian Mercer’s arms.

It was over. Done.

The harrowing was finished.

And Jesus wept.

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