The Harrowing Tree

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter One

ONE

I owe you ten bucks.”

Officer Christian Mercer didn’t even bother to lift his head from where he was sitting behind the chief’s desk, sorting through some old files.

“It happened again?” He didn’t even sound surprised, and that’s because the fact that it happened again wasn’t at all surprising. The fact that it happened again so soon, though, was.

The new trainee, Anderson Darcy inched into the room, looking small and insecure, though a lot braver than she’d looked on day one. Her young hands were plastered to her sides, fingers splayed, her uniform tucked in, not a hair out of place. Immaculate—too much so, Mercer often thought.

“That was Alison Caldwell,” she said, indicating the phone back on her own desk in the other room. “Looks like there’s another deer stuck in her mother’s living room.”

Mercer put his hands on his face, covering his eyes, and huffed out a sigh. “What was the excuse this time?”

“She thought it was her dog.”

Through the gaps in his fingers, he said, “Beverley Caldwell doesn’t own a dog.” Slowly, dropping his hands, he looked at the young officer before him over steepled fingers, trying not to look as flabbergasted as he felt. “The first time this week was an accident. But at some point, you have to figure she’s just trying to keep one as a pet.”

“Maybe to try and fill a void,” offered Andi.

“What void? Her kids never leave.”

His trainee gave a half shrug. “You don’t think she’s just senile?”

“It’s not out of the question,” he said, “knowing this town.” Mercer had come to see Bellriver as less of a town and more of a retirement home, for the lost and the confused. The old and the tarnished. “But I think Mrs. Caldwell’s just sane enough to make it look like she’s senile.”

Andi crossed her arms, clearly straining to keep still, fighting against that nervous itch. Mercer remembered it well and knew it wouldn’t last. The fear that at any moment you might be called out for doing something wrong, for standing the wrong way, for staring too long. The self-consciousness came with the territory.

She asked, “What would the point of that be?”

Mercer sat back in his chair, flattening his hands behind his head, and gazed down at the files strewn across the chief’s wooden desk. The thing was an heirloom of sorts; it had been there longer than anyone, decades even, and still held the scars of every chief that came before.

With a dazed look, he flattened his hands out over the scattered manila folders and fingered the small marks and niches in the surface of the desk, exhaling slowly and deeply.

Mercer stared at his new trainee. She was far too thin, he couldn’t help but think; she’d twist in her chair, reach for something across her desk, and where the fabric of her shirt pulled tight against the curves of her body, he would see that she was no more than a few weight classes above anorexic. Not quite unhealthy but toeing the line.

She wore her hair in a ponytail, always—it was blond, a very dirty, dirty blond, verging on brunette—and when she wore a cap, which she did more often than not, she fed it through the back so that it dangled down, inches from her spine, bouncing with every step she took.

“Sir?”

Mercer didn’t realize just how intensely he’d been staring until her bright, sky-blue eyes were on his, her thin eyebrows arched in question.

In a reverie-shattering shake of the head, Mercer dropped his eyes.

“That hat looks stupid,” he said, blinking fast.

Anderson narrowed her gaze. Then it’s a good thing it’s on my head, not yours, she thought, but would never say. She didn’t say anything at all.

He shrugged, turning away.

“The point being,” he began, shaking out his head again, “that she gets away with whatever she wants. And then when it comes time to face the consequences, she plays it off on getting older. There’s always something with these people,” he huffed. “Always something they want. I mean, isn’t that why people break the law? Because the law keeps them from doing whatever the hell they want.”

Andi’s brows rose. “That’s somewhat brilliant.”

“It’s a pain in my ass is what it is.” He flashed a withering look, not at his trainee, simply in general, at the world. “And I’m sick of people getting away with whatever they want simply because they’re older.”

Standing, Mercer grabbed his hat and coat from the rack in the corner, sweeping a disgruntled glance around the quiet office, empty save for the new trainee.

“Did you tell Alice I was on my way?”

“Yes, sir.” Andi nodded. She didn’t even bother to ask again if she should call Fish and Game or someone to come to deal with the situation; after the first time, Mercer had assured her they were that ‘someone.’

“Would you like me to go instead?” She knew she sounded too eager, but she’d been there for over two weeks and she’d hardly left the station. Save for picking up lunch from across the street at the Depot—the only good eatery in town. (It had originally been train-themed, a leftover remnant of a time before Bellriver’s single railroad had been removed. Only, no one in town cared enough about trains, so it had been converted into more of a den for hunting men and the older denizen of town.) Or putting a boot on old Mr. Henderson’s nephew’s car.

Mercer shook his head. “It’s my last day as interim chief. I might as well spend it out of the office.” He nudged his chin at the new trainee as he pulled on his coat, leaving it unzipped. “Besides, you know how it works around here. All trainees work dispatch for the first month.”

Andi tried to hide her displeasure, but Mercer saw it written all across her face, and it amused him.

It was nearly pointless, he knew. If there was no officer on duty in Bellriver, calls automatically went to Hilltown, who could then reach them by radio. But it was a tradition.

Years ago, when Chief Hastings—their current boss—had first hired him, he’d been forced to work the phones for the first month and a half. Andi Darcy was his first trainee, and he’d be damned if she didn’t get the same treatment he’d received. Though, to be fair, he’d done her the kindness of cutting back her sentence by half a month, not that it changed her attitude about dispatch.

Mercer started for the door, fitting his hat onto his head. But before he left, he turned on the threshold, and a hopeful Andi turned to meet him. She was like a lost dog, he thought; he imagined her with the ears of a German shepherd and knew they’d be perked at this moment.

“Actually . . .”

“Yes?”

Again, Andi knew she sounded too eager, too desperate, like a child bouncing on the tips of her toes. But at this point she didn’t even care. She’d do anything to get out from behind her desk. Out of the office. Out into the world.

Mercer inclined his head, spreading his lips wide in something that could only be described as a snare of a smile, something that drew you in simply to keep you there, trapped and miserable, waiting in anticipation on the balls of your feet. It wasn’t an unpleasant smile, just one that hurt. One that left you stranded.

“Didn’t we bet on twenty bucks?”

Andi’s face fell, and her superior officer’s smile only widened.

“You can leave the money on my desk,” he said, and left.

For the third time that week, Christian Mercer pulled the squad car over in front of the Caldwell’s home on the southern edge of town, just off of Crow’s Nest Pond. Beverley didn’t have a large house; an old colonial, paint peeling at the seams. Though, Mercer supposed it was big enough to house a couple of fully-grown kids who never moved out, and a deer to go with them.

“It’s in the den,” Alison said by way of greeting, shouldering the screen door wide open. She held it for him as he crossed the porch and let it quietly clang shut behind them.

Alice brought him to the kitchen where her brother, Sam, twenty-six, often drunk and extremely temperamental had his head down on the kitchen table. Mercer was somewhat relieved to see that he was asleep—and not only that, but their cat—one of many, he surmised—was lapping at the coffee that had run cold in the mug beside him.

With an inward scowl of disapproval at the way the Caldwell family lived their lives, Mercer continued on through the kitchen, paying the man little mind as he did so.

Alison, her arms crossed, inched after him, pressed so close as if she were to be his shadow.

By now, Christian had learned his way around the house, and so he didn’t need to be told that the den was just off the dining room, though Alison was there to remind him anyway.

“It was our fathers,” she said. “Mom loves to go in there to remember him. She’ll lock herself in there for hours at a time. It’s like she’s hiding from something.” Alice only shook her head.

Mercer paused outside of the den and, holding back a dissatisfied sigh, tried not to let his lack of surprise at why her mother would hide herself away present itself upon his face.

“Where is your mother now?” he asked.

Alice nudged her chin at the set of glider doors.

“Your mother’s in there with the deer?”

She nodded. “Sam and I tried to get her to come out but she won’t listen. I asked Sam to get help, but you can see how far he got. So, I called you. Again.” She stamped her foot, clearly growing frustrated, before whining: “What are we supposed to do? There’s a filthy creature in my house!”

Again.

He didn’t feel like adding that the deer was probably one of the cleaner things inside this house. Also, that this wasn’t her house.

Alison indicated the gun at his side with a quick flourish of her hand. “Are you going to shoot it, or what?”

“Have I shot any of the others?”

Thinking back like it was a hard question, she shook her head.

He asked, “Is it rabid?”

“Not that I could tell, no.”

“Then no. No, I’m not going to shoot it.”

She huffed out a sigh. “What’s the point of even having a gun if you’re not going to use it?”

“The point of having a gun is to use it when you have to, and hoping you never do. And unless you want me to shoot your mom, my gun stays where it is. Capeesh?” He motioned for her to move. “Stand back, please.”

Alice’s eyes widened, but after a moment she yielded a step back and away, not going so far as to leave the room, but still watching from a distance.

Slowly, Mercer grabbed the sliding doors and gently pulled them apart. Peering inside, he simply shook his head. Old Beverley Caldwell sat in the rocker in the back corner, knitting away, oblivious to his arrival. Oblivious that anything out of the ordinary was going on.

On the floor at her feet, chewing on one end of the red throw rug, was a deer.

No, not just a deer.

Mercer, quirking a brow, swore under his breath.

“Alice,” he murmured over his shoulder, sliding the doors shut, “what was your father’s name again?”

“Buck.” She put a hand to her heart and shook her head. “Bless his soul.”

Mercer rolled his eyes, but only after he turned his head away from her.

“Buck Caldwell?”

“His name was Bart, but everyone called him Buck.”

That’s what he thought.

“Why?”

“Because,” Mercer told her, opening the doors just wide enough for him to indicate the den and the deer at its heart. Alice came over to peer through the crack. “That’s not just a deer.”

Alice looked confused. “It’s a moose?”

“No, Alison. Not a moose.”

“Then what?”

“It’s a buck.” He nudged his chin. “Look at the antlers.”

“So what?”

So, his damn trainee had been correct. Beverley Caldwell wasn’t just playing senile, and she didn’t just want a pet—as far as they could assume, judging by the scene before him. She was trying to fill a void after all, or so it seemed. But not one caused by the absence of her children. Her children were never absent. It was her husband that was gone. Undoubtedly, the only one she’d actually wanted around.

Loosening a shallow breath, Mercer closed the doors once more and straightened. Alison did the same, unintelligently biting at a finger nail.

“I’m going to need you to cut up some fruit. And do you have any nuts in the house?”

Other than your brother, Mercer almost thought to add.

Alice looked stunned, but also somewhat excited as her demeanor changed from simply disgusted to suddenly animated, like someone hit reset on her battery pack. If she started spouting words in a foreign language, he wouldn’t be surprised—well, it was rare, at this point, that anything the Caldwell’s did or said surprised him.

“Policework makes you hungry, huh, big guy.” She poked him in the belly and any memory of the ‘filthy creature’ was forgotten for the moment as she flirtatiously swaggered back a step.

It took everything for Mercer not to scowl.

The last few times her mother had brought a deer into this house, it was easy to get out because she’d never gotten them past the kitchen. But now, with no close exits, this one would be hard to get rid of.

He put a hand to the middle of Alison’s upper back and coaxed her towards the kitchen. “Wake Sam if you have to. But we’ll need to lure this thing out of here.”

Nodding vigorously, Alice made for the kitchen, only stopping to check that he was watching her go, which he wasn’t. Mercer stared at the swinging door after she disappeared through it, hoping after today he wouldn’t have to deal with the Caldwell clan for at least a few days. But he knew that fantasy wouldn’t hold for long.

As if on cue, his phone rang.

“Sir . . .” there came a wavering voice. Darcy breathed heavily into the phone.

He joked, “Who is this?”

“Anderson Darcy, sir.” She cleared her throat and stuttered, “O-officer Darcy, I mean.”

“Who?”

“Sir?”

“Just messing with you,” he sighed, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. “What is it, Darcy? It’s a little early to be taking my lunch order.”

“Sir . . . we’ve got a body.”

“No shit.”

“Sir?”

He sighed again, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What’s this about a body, trainee?”

“We’ve got one.”

“A body.”

She paused. “Yes, sir. A body.”

Mercer took the phone away from his ear to stare into the receiver, thinking he must have heard her wrong. “A body,” he echoed, bringing the phone back up to his face. “Like a body body?”

Andi’s young voice was soft on the other end of the line. “Out on Hollow Hill. A farmer just reported it.”

“What kind of a body?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, dead air. And then Darcy’s insecure voice on the other end, saying, “The dead kind . . . sir?”

He covered his face with a hand. “A goat? A lamb? Cow?”

“Oh,” she started, understanding. “Human, sir. It’s a human body. Female. Late twenties. Possibly early thirties.”

Mercer felt the air leave his lungs in an a single instant.

“Which farmer did you say called it in?”

“I didn’t.” There came a brief pause, followed by a soft fluttering of sound as she rifled through her notes on the other end of the line. “He said his name was . . . Little Verne? Says he lives out at Heathshire Farm?”

Mercer felt the hairs at the nape of his neck begin to rise.

“Sir? Are you there, sir?”

He chewed on his lower lip, thinking. Looking around, taking nothing in, Mercer leaned against the nearest wall. “Verne said this?”

“Yes, sir. Little Verne. You know him?”

Little Verne Munson owned Heathshire Farm, one of the more prominent farmlands in Bellriver. The other more established land, Brushfire Farm, was run by Big Verne Nadler, a giant of a man. Over time, it was found that the entire town had an easier time distinguishing one farmer from the other by their height—or the lack there of, in Little Verne’s case.

The smaller of the two was, like many people in the village of Bellriver, quite the character. But despite his many flaws, he had integrity. And there was one odd thing about Little Verne, a quality that made him part of what was becoming a dying breed these days: he was honest, loyal. Trustworthy.

Which meant . . .

A body? In Bellriver?

There came the tapping of a pen. “Sir?”

“Yeah, Darcy, I know him.” Mercer stared down at his boots, forgetting Alison Caldwell and the young buck for the moment. “I’ve got good news, kid. Your days of dispatch are over. At least for the moment. Get to the Caldwell house,” he told her. “I’ll have you deal with the deer while I head out to—where did you say again, Hollow Hill?”

“Yes, sir.”

He nodded, despite the fact that she couldn’t see him.

The eagerness in Darcy’s tone was unmistakable, but Mercer decided not to call her on it. Passion for the job was a hard thing to come by these days. They needed someone like Andi Darcy, not that he’d ever willingly admit that.

Mercer started to hang up the phone when he heard his trainee’s tentative voice say, “Sir? Sir?”

“Darcy, what is it?”

“Do you think this guy is just trying to pull one over on us? Back home, the station got a ton of calls like this. Just kids with nothing better to do than try and stir up trouble.” She sounded hopeful, and Mercer hoped she was right. But he was never the optimistic type.

Mercer hesitated, but said, “The thought crossed my mind. But I grew up with Verne.” He sighed, long and hard. “If he says there’s a body, there’s a body.”

“You really think so?”

Mercer pushed off from the wall. “I think I’d better go find out.”

Andi almost ran to where her unmarked truck was parked, she was so ecstatic. When Officer Mercer had dealt her a month of dispatch, she never imagined he’d relent and actually let her out from behind that desk. But she supposed the body was to thank for that.

It was a morbid thought. That one person’s death was another’s opportunity. But the moment she got in her truck and started it up, she felt it. Felt what she’d been waiting for. She felt like an actual officer with the Bellriver Police Department—and considering she was one of two officers, that wasn’t saying much.

Back in New Mexico where she’d lived all her life, bodies showed up every now and then and no one was ever really surprised. It was kind of the way of things; a wind would blow, a fatal hand would be dealt, and in the morning, the herd would be thinner. No one thought much of it because it’s what they expected.

Sometimes light only works to shed a beacon on all that’s wrong with us. On all our misgivings, our misdeeds. Our mistakes, her father had told her once. And God knows New Mexico gets a lot of sun.

But this wasn’t New Mexico.

Still, the sun shone—and Andi feared what exactly might be waiting for them amidst its light.

When she first told her father she wanted to be a cop, he agreed under one condition: she become a cop somewhere else. Somewhere less dangerous. And she promised she would, at least in the beginning. Until she learned the ropes. More than that, though, Andi Darcy had other reasons for wanting to get out of New Mexico. So, when her father gave her that one way ticket to anywhere but there, she took it.

And she hadn’t looked back. Not yet.

Little did she realize it would be here, in a crevice of New Hampshire’s vast woodland, nestled amongst the mountains.

She’d been there for two weeks and already she’d encountered more oddities than anywhere else—and after dealing with Beverley Caldwell’s children on the phone three different times this week alone, she was somewhat hesitant to meet the people that gave this town such a unique shade of color.

Still, this was home. It had to be—for now.

On the way down Main Street, she pulled off down a dirt road and passed Mercer on his way through. She waved; he squinted.

Baby steps, Andi thought,

Officer Mercer was young, early thirties—a bit young to be chief, Andi thought. He was thin, lean. Not overly muscular, but not quite lithe, either. Healthy, Andi would put it. In better shape than most cops she’d met. Not unattractive, but also not devilishly handsome—a far cry from the type of guys that used to hit on her back in the bars of New Mexico, all brawn, all bulk, no brains.

His close cropped, tawny-brown hair looked sandy-blond when he stood in direct sunlight, always a bit messy, like he didn’t own a comb—but it didn’t look purposefully messy, the way most men wore it these days. But like he tried up until a point, and then moved on. Either gave up, or . . . or just realized it didn’t matter what he looked like. Andi guessed the latter; Mercer didn’t seem the type to give in or give up all that easily.

Still, his sloped shoulders told another story, one in which he carried a great burden everywhere he went.

A looker if you were looking for it, she supposed—at least that’s how her sister used to describe certain men back home. Especially, Andi couldn’t keep herself from thinking, when it came to Mercer’s honey-brown gaze, his eyes like burnished gold in certain lighting.

Stalks of wheat—that’s what they reminded her of. Gold, sunlit. Boundless fields.

A looker, sure. But Andi wasn’t looking.

She sped up and surrendered herself to the dirt cloud that fought to consume her truck.

That was something Andi liked, though. The abundance of dirt and gravel roads. At least something reminded her of home.

Bellriver had about two ways in and out of town, and Main Street connected them both. She was certain, though, that if you knew this town like Mercer did, there were just about a hundred back roads that could get you out of here unnoticed.

It was New Hampshire after all, she was learning, and every road and every dirt path had to lead somewhere. Sometimes there was just a mountain in the way.

Pulling up to the Caldwell house about a mile down Miller’s Lane, she threw her door wide and dropped down to the ground, but not before grabbing her coat from the back seat. It was the end of October and she could already see her breath. Mercer said it would be a cold one, but she hadn’t believed him, mainly out of stubbornness. She wasn’t ready to adapt to a new climate. Especially an even colder one.

Shivering, Andi walked up to the porch and knocked. When no one answered, she opened the door and stepped in, only to find a younger woman on her way to open the door. In her hands was a bowl of fruit.

“Well, you’re not him. Who are you? And where is he?”

She made an effort of standing on her toes and attempting to peer over her, as though she could see through the closed door.

“He being . . . Mercer?”

“That’s Chief Mercer to you,” the woman scolded, scowling.

Andi’s brows shot up.

Interim Chief Mercer,” she corrected herself, “had to go take care of some business elsewhere. So, I’m here instead.”

She huffed out a sigh like this was the worst news she possibly could have received.

“And what did you say your name was?”

“Officer Darcy.”

“Well, Officer Darcy, we kind of have a situation here. Are you equipped to deal with it?”

Andi opened her mouth, but the woman was already walking away.

“I’m no Chief Mercer, but I think I can handle it,” she told the woman, who Andi took to be Alison Caldwell, and followed her deeper into the home.

Alice stuck up her nose and, turning, shoved the bowl of fruit into her hands.

“Well, then Officer—Darcy, is it?”

“Uh, huh,” said Andi, clicking her tongue.

“Well—Officer Darcy—the deer is in the den.”

Andi looked down at the bowl and Alison stalked off in a huff.

After a moment, standing there alone, Andi asked no one in particular, “Where’s the den?” She sighed, lowering her head when no answer followed. “Hello?”

Mercer parked off to the side of Cross Road, the only street that ran alongside Hollow Hill, tucked at an angle as not to be in the way of any approaching vehicles coming or going down the narrow pass.

Little Verne was waiting for him there, sitting on one of the thicker fence posts staked into the earth, marking the end of the field that ran adjacent to the road.

“You called about a body?”

“Kit, my man. I thought they’d send out Chief Hastings to deal with this.” He clapped him on the back. “Did you finally get that promotion?”

Kit. He hated being called Kit.

Per usual, Little Verne had his wires crossed. Everyone in town knew there was no ‘they,’ save for Chief Hastings and Mercer himself—and now trainee Andi Darcy. And besides, he wasn’t seeking a promotion. Where was there to go? He could be Chief full time but where would that leave Hastings?”

“No, the Chief comes back tomorrow, Verne.”

“The chief’s been away?”

“You didn’t hear about the accident?”

“The accident? Oh, oh. That was a nasty bit, wasn’t it? How’s the chief doing? Gonna make it?”

“Guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”

Little Verne nodded. “Chief’s coming back?”

Mercer nodded.

“So, you called about a body?”

“Unfortunately,” said the farmer, squinting up at the sun.

He nudged his chin towards the field of tall grass. A slight breeze sent a ripple through its surface, and it was then that Mercer noticed a bald spot in its face, like a hole or a depression in the field. A place where the grass didn’t grow.

Or where something was covering it.

Slowly, Mercer climbed over the wire linking the fence posts together and marched, somewhat reluctantly, into the tall grass.

“Recognize her?” he asked, looking back.

Little Verne spit into the dirt, offering a nod. “And you will too.”

Andi set down the empty bowl on the kitchen table, but only after sneaking a piece of apple into her mouth.

She looked around.

By the house’s outward appearance, once would never really expect to find the inside as disastrous as it was. Stains on every surface, carpets and drapes a dingy off-white, dishes piled high in the kitchen sink and all along the counters. Even the ceilings were stained, and cobwebs hung from every corner.

Andi wondered how a place could fall into such disarray with highly functioning people still living in it.

At the kitchen table, the snoring bum had lifted his head only once to look at her. Sam didn’t seem confused by her appearance, but simply accepted the fact that she was there—before retching on the floor.

She flinched back and away, plugging her nose against the smell.

Luckily, it was out of the way, and with this house, it seemed to match; there was nothing pleasant about this place, from the stains and the smells and everything in-between.

Andi managed to sprinkle the fruit and nuts around the table and the vomit, leading the trail back to the front of the house and out the door. If she was lucky, the deer would follow the path right outside.

Slowly, having previously found ‘the den,’ Andi slid the doors wide. Beverley Caldwell lifted her head. Upon seeing the officer in the doorway, she simply offered a grin and went back to work, knitting a scarf.

“It’s for Buck,” she assured Andi. “Think he’ll like it?”

Officer Darcy pushed the doors as wide as they would go, and the deer didn’t even look up from where it was chewing on the den’s molding.

“Buck wants to stay with me,” Beverley whined. “He told me so himself.”

Andi inched towards where the deer lied on the floor beside the woman’s chair. She contemplated whether Officer Mercer had been right—was she senile, or was it an act? Because if so, she did a damn good job of it. But, then again, Beverley Caldwell was ancient. Little and frail and fragile, like a Christmas decoration that’d been left out in the rain.

She suspected it didn’t take much acting to make herself seem out of her wits.

“While that may be, Mrs. Caldwell,” Andi calmly said, holding out her hands so that the buck knew she meant no harm, “this deer has a family and a home to get back to.”

Abruptly distraught, Beverley threw down her knitting needles and scowled at the young officer. She even went so far as to give Andi the finger. “He has a home and a family and they’re right here.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Caldwell.”

“Stop saying that,” she cut in, all stubbornness and derision.

“He’s going to have to come with me—”

Just then, the young buck rose up on its legs and scented the air. Seeing the trail of fruit and nuts on the floor, it started forward, and Andi slid along the wall of the den, trying to move around it without inciting fear.

“Buck,” Beverley called. “Buck, I’m talking to you. Buck.”

But the deer paid her no mind, and slowly moving forward, it followed the path of fruit, munching slowly on the snacks left out for it. It followed the small slivers of apple and strawberries all the way to the kitchen, Andi close behind.

And then, with all the grace of a broken jack-in-the-box, Sam Caldwell woke with a jolt and something not unlike a growl, lurching back to life.

The deer spooked, skittering backwards over the badly stained linoleum tiles, flecked here and there with objectionable substances that Andi couldn’t quite place. Before she could do anything, the young buck leapt up and kicked her in the ribs, sending her sprawling to the ground like a kid on the playground who’d just fallen from the teetertotter.

She barely evaded Sam’s vomit as she fell back against the lower kitchen cabinets, getting a small, wooden knob to the spine. The deer, mercifully, charged for the door, somehow garnering the sense to turn the corner and flee outside the open door, rather than hurl itself up the flight of stairs to the second floor.

Did deer even know how to climb stairs?

Andi pushed her way to her feet and stumbled around the corner, clutching her side. She saw the deer scamper down the steps of the front porch, across the flat lawn and the dirt road beyond, and it never once stopped to look back as it vanished into the waiting woods.

With a deep breath into her lungs, Andi leaned against the open doorway and let out a quiet, pain-riddled laugh—and in that very moment, a small bird swooped low over her head, and disappeared into the Caldwell house beyond.

Sam appeared behind her, still drunk from a night of drinking, judging by the way he stood, holding the wall for dear life. He watched the bird as though trying to decide whether it was a figment of his own imagination. And when he looked at Andi, he seemed to do the same thing.

“What’s that thing?” demanded Alison, rounding the corner. She scowled up at the bird, fluttering harmlessly and helplessly in circles, looking for the sky it lost.

Andi clutched her side tighter where a set of dirty deer prints covered her jacket and squinted up at the ceiling. The poor thing continued its flight in small rotations, uncertain of where to go next.

Only when shit started raining from the ceiling like minuscule, individual missiles did Officer Darcy make for the door.

“Wait! Aren’t you going to get this bird out of here?” Alison demanded, chasing after her. “It’s making a mess!”

“Oh, so you do know what it is,” Andi mumbled. She winced as she clambered into her truck. She looked out at where Alison stood, arms crossed, scowling up at her. “Just leave the windows open and it’ll eventually fly out,” offered Andi.

“And to who do I send the bill?”

She stared. “The bill?”

“To clean the carpets.” Alison, planting her foot, nudged her chin back at the house, and for a moment, Andi wondered if she looked just as pathetic whenever she crossed her own arms—she would have to keep that in mind. “Someone’s gotta pay for this. My house has become a zoo!”

Andi said, “Last I checked, this is your mother’s home. And, again, last I checked it was illegal to capture deer and keep them as pets. There’s that whole thing where they might transfer diseases to humans and their other domesticated pets.”

This made Alison squirm, darting back a step like Andi’s words were Caldwell repellent.

“So, if you want to talk about bills, I can come back with the chief and a warrant for your arrest.”

Alison’s jaw dropped. “My arrest? But it’s my mother’s deer! This is her house, not mine—”

Andi slammed the door and started her truck, blocking out the rest of Alison Caldwell’s words. Turning the heat to high, grateful to be back in the warmth, she started back up Miller’s Lane.

In her rearview mirror, Alice could be seen standing by the road, giving her the finger. Andi, looking to have some fun, hit the brakes. When she flipped on the lights and the siren, Alison Caldwell’s small figure could be seen running for the hills. Not unlike a deer herself.

“So, what do you think?”

“I think you were right,” Mercer answered, straightening up from where he crouched in the tall grass to look at Verne. “I think it’s a body.”

And it was. A body he knew well.

Kerry Greaves. Local photographer. In her late twenties. But she’d left earlier in the year to pursue other job opportunities, Mercer recalled, and no one had seen her since.

Clearly someone had.

She’d taken her camera and left, finally moving out of the room above her father’s garage, as though, at her age, this was some sort of achievement to be celebrated.

Everyone knew Kerry, though. And everyone loved Kerry.

But here she was, both her eyes and mouth wide open, as though frozen in mid-sentence—not scream, but sentence, like she’d been talking. Her dark, chestnut hair was matted with dried blood, and there were flecks of it on her freckled face, though not a lot around the body itself. The ground was dry.

“Verne?”

“Yeah.”

“Grab me some gloves from the glove compartment.”

“Yes, sir.” He paused. “Is that why they call it that?” came his voice.

“Call it what?”

“Glove compartment.”

Mercer ignored this and continued his analysis of the body, raking his eyes over hers. A moment later, Verne yelled back, “There’s a woman on the radio for you, chief. Should I answer?”

He glanced back in the direction of his car. “What did she say?”

“‘The buck’s in the clear. Should I come out there?’” Verne paused. “The buck’s in the clear? Is that code for something, Mercer? Some kind of sex thing I don’t know about? Who is she—?”

“Verne?”

“Yeah.”

“Just tell her to get over here.”

“Yes, chief.”

“And bring those gloves.”

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.