These are my good snow gloves,” Mercer disgustedly said to the man when Andi pulled over to the side of the road.
“Well, what gloves did you expect? How many pairs do you got?”
Mercer gave the man a dark look before turning to his new trainee. “Hey, Darcy. Got any gloves?”
Giving the farmer a quick once-over, she got out some latex gloves from her back seat and handed them to him through her open window.
“This the farmer?”
“Little Verne Munson,” Mercer said, nodding to the man.
“But you can call me Verne,” he said, saddling up close to her truck. He had a small goatee that waddled when he spoke, and if you looked close enough, there was evidence of his lunch hanging down like beads.
He offered her a hand, his long, shaggy, sandy-blond hair blowing in the breeze.
Andi chose to ignore him and hopped down, slamming the door of her truck behind her. She locked it with a press of her key fob.
“This is Bellriver,” Mercer said. “There’s no need to lock your doors.”
Andi ignored this.
“So, we gotta body?” she asked, swallowing deeply.
“Looks that way,” Mercer sighed, squinting.
“Anyone you know?”
He brought her through the pasture of tall grass and stopped at a hole in the ground. Only, when she approached, she realized it wasn’t a hole at all, just a place where the grass didn’t stick up. A place where a body now laid.
Her limbs were the first thing Andi noticed. Splayed out and away from her body, almost like the sky had just opened and dropped her there. Left her for dead.
Pulling on the latex gloves she’d given him with a tight snap, Mercer bent low to the ground and indicated for Andi to do the same.
From the road, they must have looked like puppets, suddenly disappearing into the grass.
“This your first body?” he asked.
A small nod. “But I saw enough cadavers back at my college to be familiar.” She surveyed the body, the face. So pale. “Nothing so fresh, though,” she admitted.
“If I was, would I be here?”
Mercer grinned. Good: he could rely on her.
Lowering his head, his arms hung over his knees, he looked down into the face of the body.
“Have you identified her?”
He offered a brief nod. “Kerry Greaves. She was the town’s photographer.” Mercer closed his eyes for a moment. “Kerry was the girl you called if you needed someone to watch your kids while you ran to the store. Someone always happy to see you, young or old.”
Andi’s muscles tensed. “I’m sorry,” she said, and she felt weird for saying it—but it wasn’t often that the officer tending to the scene of a death actually knew the victim. Though, it wasn’t uncommon, either.
The victim. Not a woman. Not a person. No longer even Kerry Greaves. Just a body. A victim.
Mercer looked at her. “You didn’t kill her,” he said before going back to the body. “No reason to be sorry.”
But Andi knew that wasn’t true.
“She’s pretty,” Andi said, staring down, taking in the young woman’s long, dark hair, her bright green eyes—that, she supposed, must have been brighter once upon a time. Now, they stared up, wide, as if watching for rain, but there was no life in them anymore. No consciousness. Only a simple abruptness, a moment of stunned horror, frozen in time—frozen on her face.
Andi had seen corpses before. Once or twice, back in college. And she heard people talk about the lack of light in the eyes of a body, but she never realized just how perfectly empty they would be. Like a jack-o’-lantern, whose flame had burned out. A light that lost its glow—but from within.
She wanted to reach out, to close the woman’s eyes. But instead, Andi turned away, and wondered what it was that Kerry Greaves had last seen to make them open so wide.
To herself, she added, “Or, at least she was.”
Mercer clicked his tongue, just once, and looked Kerry over.
“What is it?”
He offered a brief shrug of a shoulder, as if it was nothing—but his eyes, staring so intently, told a different story. “I think the body was moved.”
“Moved?” Andi tilted her head, studying the woman’s prone form, splayed across the grass. As if she’d simply tumbled straight out of the clouds. “What makes you say that, sir?”
“See here,” Mercer said, indicating the ground beneath the body without ever touching her. It. “There’s no blood. She didn’t die here.”
“Can you be so sure?” Andi stared, and her gaze caught on the girl’s scalp. The right side of her skull was badly beaten in, caved in towards the front around her temple.
“One, two—maybe three hits to the head,” he said, indicating her wound. “It wouldn’t have taken much. But there should be blood.”
Andi felt her stomach churn. She looked so normal, so perfectly fine, if only she didn’t look at that part of her skull. And her eyes. Those were lost eyes, the eyes of someone who’d seen the darkness of oblivion and continued forward.
The eyes of someone who would never see again.
“Could be internal bleeding,” offered Andi. “That would explain the lack of a . . . mess.”
A subtle nod. “That was my first guess, as well. But look here.” He showed her the dried blood on the girl’s face, flecked here and there, and the clumps of it in her hair. There should have been more—a lot more, by the looks of it. And there should have been some on the ground.
Mercer said, “Looks like she was bludgeoned to death. And see these?” He indicated faint streaks of dirt on the back of her right arm, which was splayed at an angle, revealing the underside. “She was dragged.”
Lifting his head, Mercer nodded towards the road. “Someone probably drove her here and carried her off into this field.”
Andi nodded. “But why?”
“Why?” He looked at her. “Why does anyone do anything?”
“No,” she said. “Why here?” Andi, hands on her hips, searched the pasture.
Mercer exhaled deeply. “This is actually a historic sight.”
“Hollow Hill?” She looked around for any landmarks, something historical, but saw nothing, save the slope of the long grass and the one tree, seemingly standing guard over all things. “Why’s that?”
He motioned with his chin towards it’s huge, sweeping branches, that jutted from its center like tentacles, swimming outward.
Being that it was late in the season, a majority of the tree’s leaves had already fallen, leaving its skeleton behind, bony and barren. Cold—it looked like cold incarnate, Andi couldn’t help but think. Like the embodiment of a shiver.
“That’s the Harrowing Tree.” Squinting, Mercer stood over the body. “Back when Bellriver was first founded, they held executions right here.”
Andi’s brows shot up. “Here? On Hollow Hill?”
He offered a brief nod. “They’d string people up from its branches.” His eyes fell, but Andi couldn’t take hers from the tree. The Harrowing Tree. “Fast forward a bit and you’ve got Ferguson Mayberry, Bellriver’s cruelest chief. A nice guy, everyone thought. Until he went rogue and strung up anyone that stood in his way. . . The power went to his head. No one questioned him.” Mercer pushed out a breath. “They found them hanging there. The bodies. Just dangling. Black. White. Didn’t matter,” he said. “And then someone—they never found out who—did the same to old Mayberry.”
The corners of Mercer’s lips twinged up. “He hanged, just like all the rest.”
Andi’s ears were ringing. She opened her mouth, her jaw working, but could muster nothing more than, “Oh.”
“Never thought racism and police brutality could be found somewhere like this, did you?”
Snapping her attention back from the tree, she shrugged again. “I mean, I guess it’s where you least expect it that you find it the most.”
Mercer’s eyes found their way to hers, and he paused.
“Still,” Andi said. “Why leave a body here, even if it is a historic hill? I mean, if someone was desperate, sure, the tall grass works fine.” She spun, scanning her surroundings. “But why not bury it? Hide it in the woods?”
How quickly a she becomes an it, Andi realized. An object.
Mercer shook his head. “Unless whoever dumped her wanted her to be found.”
“You think so?”
Another shrug. “I think there’s a lot of controversy over this sight.” As if on cue, his eyes went back to the Harrowing Tree. “Some people want the tree cut down. They see it as a blight on the town’s history. Others, like the members of Bellriver’s Historical Society, see it as a testament to the adversity the town has faced in the past.” A reminder—that a person always had a choice. And they could still choose good.
Mercer blinked, fast.
How many people still knew there was even a choice?
“And what do you think? Sir.”
He looked at her. “I think if you cut it down, there’ll be nothing left to remind people of how power can go to a person’s head.” He shifted on his feet, bracing himself against the sudden cool breeze sifting through the tall grass. “Cut it down and this just becomes a hill. And people go back to thinking the past teaches us nothing.”
Andi surveyed his face, his cold, stony features.
“You’ve clearly thought about this, then?”
“It’s a small town, Darcy. Not much else to think about.”
She crossed her arms. “So, going back to the body. You think someone left her here out of protest?”
“I imagine,” said Mercer, “they thought it convenient to kill two birds with one stone. The killer had the body, and they thought that rather than simply get rid of it, they could leave it to make a point. Leave a mark.”
“There’s making a point and then there’s leaving a threat?”
“Sometimes those lines get blurred,” he said. “But we can’t leave out the other option.”
“Someone deliberately killed Kerry Greaves to make that specific threat. That killing her and leaving her here wasn’t an afterthought.”
Andi nodded. “But would anyone really do that? Would someone really kill over a simple tree?”
With a sad smirk, he said, “Welcome to Bellriver.”
Andi suddenly missed New Mexico a whole lot more.
“Anyway, we’ll have the medical examiner look at the body. Then the lab can confirm whether or not she was left here.” He motioned to the body’s head. “But something as brutal as this, a blow capable of deforming the shape of the skull, would be beyond internal bleeding, don’t you think?”
Again, Andi nodded, listening. She was quiet for a moment, thinking, searching the body and taking in the insignificant details like she’d been trained to do. Like all the best mystery novels she’d read back in high school taught her to do. But then something caught her eye.
Mercer stopped, searching. “What’s what?”
“That.” She brought out a pair of her own gloves and pulled them on, retrieving a pair of tweezers from her coat. Then, slowly, she carefully brought them to the woman’s hair, where a piece of hard plastic was caught between her dark locks. She brought it up to show Mercer; part of it shone in the light.
“I’m not sure.” He sighed deeply through his nose. “You don’t happen to have an evidence bag handy, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Verne,” he called.
“Grab me some evidence bags from the front consul of my car.”
“You know, I don’t work for you, right?”
Mercer growled, “You hardly work at all.”
No reply came with this, but moments later Verne appeared in the field with some different sized bags in his hands. Mercer took them and handed one to Andi, who slid the small fragment of plastic inside and sealed it.
“How’d you find her?” Andi asked, squinting up at the farmer.
“Came out here to take a leak.”
She looked around. “Here? All the way out here? Why so far from the road?” She motioned past him, back towards the road. “And why not the woods?”
Verne staggered on his feet. “I . . .” He suddenly looked very unsure of himself.
Mercer looked up, too. “Verne, the truth.”
“Oh, alright. I . . . I, uh . . . Oh hell, I got another dog, Kit.”
Andi blinked at the name, but when she saw Mercer tense up, she thought better to leave it for now.
“Damn it, Verne.”
Andi didn’t understand. “Another dog?”
Mercer stood and led them back towards the road a little ways, putting some space between them and the body.
To Andi, he said, “Verne here gets ‘baby fever’ when it comes to dogs. Adopts more than he can handle. Thinks just because he owns the farm down the road that he can keep each in check. But they’re always running around town, untrained and uncouth. Causing mayhem left and right.”
Andi shook her head.
Their ideas of mayhem were very different things.
“Those dogs are good, you hear?”
Mercer scowled. “One of those damn beasts ruined Mrs. Nelson’s funeral.”
“Which I apologized for,” Verne quickly threw in.
“How do you ruin a funeral?” asked Andi.
Mercer sighed. “The dog knocks the casket down a hill.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Verne told her.”
“I wasn’t done,” Mercer continued. “They knocked her down Fernskeep—you know the steep hill on the north side of town?”
Andi looked between them. “You mean the one with the pond at the bottom?”
Mercer nodded. “That’d be the one.”
Andi shrugged. “Seems like a stupid place for a funeral.”
“Thank you, yes. Exactly,” Verne said. “I like this one, Mercer.” He nudged her in the side. “And besides, Susan just wanted to give Mrs. Nelson one last swim.”
“Susan? You named your dog Susan?”
“Something wrong with that, sweet cheeks?”
Andi peered down her nose at him. “Just doesn’t sound like a name you’d give a dog.”
“Rather I call her ‘Dipshit,’ like her past owners?” Verne shook his head, scowling into the distance. “I did right by that dog, you hear. I might not always do right but I did right by her, and no one can tell me differently.”
Mercer, running a hand down over his face, said, “Only the police.”
Verne muttered incoherently to himself, which both Mercer and Andi chose to ignore.
“We managed to give his dogs away to homes that could actually handle them,” he explained to Andi. “The court ruled you couldn’t have more than one at a time, Verne. Remember? And last I checked you still have Silvia back on the farm.”
Andi didn’t bother asking.
“I know, I know,” said Verne.
“So, what are you doing with another dog?”
“Trying not to get caught.”
“Verne . . .”
The man put up his hands as if in prayer. “Please, Mercer, he needs me.”
“You said that about the last twelve, Verne.”
“And I stand by that. But this one came from an abusive household. Please, Mercer. Just let him stay. Let him know he has a good home now. If you take him . . .” Little Verne stood his ground, suddenly looking altogether like an entirely different person. “I won’t let you take him.”
“Keep it together, old man,” Mercer sighed. “Luckily for you, I have bigger things to worry about.”
Andi looked at Verne. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Oh, oh. Sorry. Yes, the body.”
“Yes,” echoed Mercer, focusing, “the body.” He rose and handed Verne back the empty evidence bags without looking at the man. “And besides,” he said, “it’s not like I take pleasure in denying you the company of a dog.”
“Puppy,” corrected Verne.
“For Christ’s sake,” mumbled Andi.
“Anyway, anyway,” Verne said, throwing up his hands in surrender. “I was walking the new pup down this way. Figured I needed the exercise and he could probably use a stretch.” He nudged his chin over towards where Kerry Greaves lay. “I walked him into the tall grass to do his business. Didn’t bring any doggy bags with me, you see. Figured this way I wouldn’t get caught.”
Andi glanced around. “Wait, where is the dog now?”
“I sent him on his way,” said Verne. “I like to give my dogs the freedom to wander, so they’ll need to find their way home sooner or later.”
Mercer, thinking back to Mrs. Nelson’s casket floating in Sand Pond with Verne’s dog swimming right alongside it, pinched his nose and shook out his head.
“Verne, why don’t you take the cones from my trunk and start closing off the road. Mercifully, Hollow Hill is just a connector road, and we can turn away approaching vehicles from either side.” He looked at his new trainee next. “Andi, grab the camera from my car and start taking pictures. I’ll put a call into Hilltown and get a team down here to take care of the body.”
Hilltown was, Andi knew, the neighboring village—almost four times as large as Bellriver, just down the mountain from there.
As they started for the car, Mercer held Andi back. “I’ll also put a call in to the medical examiner, though it might be a while.”
Andi gave a small nod. “Do you think we should alert the chief?”
Mercer thought about it but shook his head. “I am the chief.”
For one more day, Andi didn’t need to remind him. He knew. And while part of him seemed relieved, another seemed sad to see the role go. Andi wondered if she’d like her new boss: she’d gotten used to Mercer for the most part. Would she like Chief Hastings?
“When you’re done taking pictures, write up a preliminary report. We want to secure this crime scene. When I’m off the phone, I’ll cordon off the area. I should have tape in my backseat.”
“Use it often?”
He shook his head. “Mainly scenes of vandalism. A few break-ins.”
She paused. “Do you get a lot of murders around here, Officer Mercer?”
“Once,” was all he said. “A long time ago.” But then, as she made for the road, he followed, saying, “Back then, the chief and I didn’t know what to do. We made mistakes, Darcy.” Mercer shook his head almost defiantly. “We won’t make any this time.”
Andi glanced back at Verne. “Isn’t one of the first acts of securing a crime scene ensuring that the one who found the body is kept far away from the scene?”
Mercer watched her closely. “I’ve known Verne all my life. His only crime is loving too much, as odd as that sounds.” And besides, this wasn’t the first time he’d helped out with official police business. Chief Hastings even went so far as to deputize him back in the Ice Storm of ’08.” He paused, giving the man a once over. “No, it’s better to keep him close. He’s our one link to the body as of right now. And,” he said, “it’s not like we’ve got a cell to put him in.”
Andi nodded. No cell, indeed. Just a pole, a chair, and some handcuffs.
“You know he’s not capable of murder?”
Andi’s brows furrowed. “What about moving a body?”
Mercer paused to stare off at the farmer once again. “He didn’t do this, Darcy.”
“If he did, I get my money back.”
Mercer looked gravely ahead. Above, a cloud shifted, and light spiraled down upon his face, sharpening his cheekbones, the hollows beneath his eyes that she had yet to notice until then.
“There are some things you simply don’t bet over,” he warned.
Andi knew it to be true. And that was her first mistake.