The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Three

THREE

In a daze, Jeannie Fellows stared down at the coffee mug clutched between her tense fingers, counting the seconds until the caffeine took effect.

Where is she? Why hasn’t she come home?

These questions ran on repeat inside her head like clockwork.

“You should get some sleep,” her fiancé, Mark said as he sat down in the La-Z-Boy chair across the coffee table from her.

He was only forty-one, but she could hear his bones creak as he settled into the chair. He watched her now, brown eyes soft, worrying. He was dressed in his usual combination of brown slacks and flannel, the sleeves of which were rolled up; his sandy hair was messy, and he was gaining a bit of a gut, but even in that moment, Jeannie was almost startled by how much she loved the man.

“I’m not tired,” Jeannie lied, setting down her mug on the table with a loud rap that rattled through the house. It was her third cup and it didn’t seem to be doing anything for her. She tapped her foot again, and again, and again, hoping that might get her blood pumping, might force the caffeine into her veins.

Where is she?

The ceiling fan thrummed above them, and he shivered, but Mark knew better than to tell Jeannie to turn it off. She liked it cool. It made her sleepy, and right now Mark knew better than anything else that what Jeannie needed most was sleep.

Mark sighed and grabbed a blanket from the basket beside his chair. “You can’t do this to yourself,” he told her, holding back a tremor from the cold. He laid the blanket across his lap and, pulling out another, offered it to his future wife.

She shook her head.

“You’re not responsible, you know. You can’t hold yourself—”

“I became responsible for her the moment she walked through that door,” Jeannie hissed, jabbing a finger towards the entrance to their shared home. “The moment I found her pills.” This she said a little quieter—almost as though the rest of the world might be listening at the window. And maybe they were.

Why hasn’t she come home?

Jeannie stood. She had all this energy and nowhere to put it.

“Pacing isn’t going to help.”

“What if she’s back with that guy?” she asked, ignoring him. “Do we call her father? The police?”

“And tell them what?” Mark rested his head back, settling into the chair. “Honey, Kerry is a grown woman. She can take care of herself.”

But even as he said this, Mark feared for the opposite. What if she couldn’t?

Jeannie chewed a nail and walked the floor, pacing back and forth from one end of the living room to the other. “It’s my fault, you know. My fault.” Her eyes traced the walls; they looked crazed, exhausted, as if she couldn’t remember how to close them.

Where is she?

Who is she with?

Why hasn’t she come home?

Jeannie’s teeth began to chatter.

At this, Mark stood, letting his blanket fall to the floor. “Did you get her addicted to pain medication?” he asked.

Jeannie abruptly stopped. Her eyes snapped to his, as if hearing him for the very first time.

She said, “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

Where is she?

“I mean,” Jeannie told him, “it’s my fault she left. My fault she’s not here right now. What if she’s out there on the street?”

Who is she with?

“Kerry’s a smart girl,” Mark assured her. “She’s lived here most of her life. She knows everyone, and everyone knows her. For all we know, she’s shacked up in Mr. Nelson’s basement.”

High off her gourd, Mark thought to add, but didn’t.

Jeannie slowly nodded. “Right,” she said, still biting her nail. “You’re probably right.”

But what if he’s not?

“Of course, I’m right,” said Mark. And he wrapped her in his arms, but not before snatching a blanket from the basket on the floor and pulling it around her. “Now,” he said, firmly, kissing her gently on the nose. “It’s time to get some sleep. If Kerry isn’t here by this time tomorrow, I’ll call the police. But she isn’t missing, Jeannie. She’s just not here.”

Where is she?

Again, Jeannie nodded, snuggling into the warmth of the blanket and his rigid embrace.

Mark helped her to the couch and laid her down, gently, feeling her tense bones shift beneath her clothing.

Then, when she was fast asleep, he moved their decaf coffees to the kitchen and poured them down the drain.

Yawning, Mark picked up the house phone and punched in a number.

In the other room, Jeannie stared out the window, and whispered, “Where have you gone?”

Harriet Brackett, Bellriver’s one and only librarian, heard the phone ring while she was outside, emptying the book return.

“Donnie?” she called into the small library behind her. “Donnie, honey, can you get that?”

Donnie Dooley, lazily flipping through a magazine on Birds of New England, reached for the phone without looking and drawled, as he’d done a thousand times before, “Bellriver Public Library, how can I make your day better?”

“Donnie? That you?”

“Oh, hey Mark. Looking for Hattie?”

“I was,” Mark said on the other side of the line, quietly, so as not to wake Jeannie in the other room.

The bell above the front door chimed Harriet’s arrival, and with a hand waving for the phone, she mouthed, “Who’s on the phone?”

Hattie was not the most beautiful woman, but she had this sort of air of joviality that always brought people to her table. She was a fairly large woman—she wouldn’t quite take up two seats at a ballgame but wouldn’t be comfortable in just one alone. She was half Korean American—Korean on her mother’s part, American on her father’s, hence the last name Brackett—but she looked mostly Korean, with black hair that flowed to her shoulders, and a belly that usually ended in a hoopskirt of some kind.

“It’s Mark,” Donnie said, handing it to her. He frowned. “You know, you really should start paying me one of these days, Hattie.”

“I’ll start paying you the day you actually take this job seriously.” Hattie brought the phone to one of the few cushioned window seats the library had to offer and settled in, curling up with her knees to her chest. “What’s up, honey?” she said into the phone. “How’s Jeannie? Any word from Kerry?”

Hattie Brackett was not a Bellriver native, born and raised, as she often liked to tell people. She grew up on a farm in New York state, in a town that, although small, seemed like a metropolis compared with the village of Bellriver.

She’d raised enough money working nights at a bar two towns over from where she lived and put herself through college. The first in her family. But when Hattie had announced she was leaving the farm to study English, her parents were not pleased. They’d even gone so far as to give her a choice.

Stay and live a happy life. A farm life. Or leave and never come back—become a stranger.

Hattie had chosen to leave, to see the world on her own, and though her decision to study English had taken her to many unexpected places, Bellriver was by far her favorite. And so, she’d decided to stay. She started off working at the Depot as a server—that’s where she met Donnie—but the moment the librarian announced he was retiring, she’d jumped at the opportunity to take over.

It didn’t pay well. She wasn’t rich. Hattie didn’t get far, those days. And her car could only be considered a car because it had four wheels and it ran—but only in those aspects. But she was young, only thirty-seven, and she’d made a life for herself in Bellriver, surrounding herself with books, beautiful views of woods and mountains, and the best people she’d ever known.

Hattie often wondered what her life would be like if she’d stayed on their farm. But then she looked out the window, as she was doing right then, and she no longer needed to wonder. She already knew she’d made the right choice.

Outside, the leaves on the trees had all but fallen, and Hattie could feel the cold seeping through the old glass of the window.

“Kerry still missing?” asked Donnie, flipping through his magazine, never looking up.

“Hush, you.”

Mark sighed into the phone. “Nothing yet. But Jeannie’s finally asleep.”

“That’s good to hear,” Hattie said. “Hey, listen. Donnie and I are about to head to the Depot. Want to meet us there?”

Donnie lifted his head from his magazine, his ears perked like a dog’s. “We are?”

Harriet sighed, “You have to work sometime, Donnie-boy.”

Donnie, thirty-six-years-old, his brown head of hair always crammed in a backwards baseball cap, was the owner of the Depot. (Formerly known as “Donnie Dooley’s Depot,” but the name was shortened to fit on the napkins.) He lived in the house directly beside the place and was open seven days a week, which was probably why he was so thin—he never sat down. But there was a good chance that if he wasn’t behind the counter—or in the place itself, for that matter, he was on one of his “smoke brakes.”

That’s what Donnie called it, anyway, even though he didn’t smoke. But every chance he got, he would walk up the hill to the library and pay a visit to Harriet. He could see the Depot from the library’s windows, so he could see whenever he had a customer, but sometimes he liked to make people wait if it meant just one more moment with the love of his life.

Harriet didn’t want to get married. They’d been together for years. Partners in all things. And, even though Donnie thought he might like to be married someday, he went along with it—better to be partners than nothing else.

“We’re already married,” Hattie once said. “Your soul and mine, bonded. Why do we need more?”

Donnie had a list, but he kept silent on the subject.

Just then, Lynne and Luther Cabot came up the distant rise that settled into the flat terrain of Bellriver’s town common. They sat nestled into their little two-seater wagon as their horse, Taeadore pulled them along. Lynne, wearing her usual sunhat and Luther, a flannel on top of a flannel.

Must be almost noon, though Hattie. That’s when the Cabot’s rode into town every morning. Not for anything in particular, just to be a part of things.

It was at this time every day that she allowed herself to forget, just for a moment, what century they were in. Though it was often ruined by the town youths, speeding past in their jeeps and their trucks.

Luther held up a hand in greeting, and Lynne took off her hat, waving it about.

Hattie, smiling out the window, waved back and said into the phone, “You sound like you could use a bite to eat.”

“No,” Mark said into the phone, exhaustion plain in his voice. “I should stay here with Jeannie. Just in case Kerry does return.” She imagined him shaking out his head, the way he often did—as if trying to dispel all of his problems right from his memory. “Or when she returns.”

Harriet nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. She looked out the window, staring down the street at the small congregation of buildings clustered around the town common, and somewhere beyond it, the River Vesper, roaring away.

Bellriver was small, mercifully. Not Washington, New Hampshire small, of course—very few things were that small—but a close second. There was a church, St. John’s, which towered up to touch the sky, and beside it, the old school house, a petit structure nestled in among the rest—the second floor of which was now used as the police station.

A small smattering of houses dappled the town, almost like a miniaturized congregation sculpted for the inside of a snow globe. There was even an old gazebo adjacent to the church, across from the Depot; because the town was at the edge of a slope, when you stood on it, you could see the River Vesper below, spread out like a lopsided silver strait, and far beyond, the mills for which Hilltown was once known.

The townhall came next in the short line of Bellriver’s picturesque architecture, a bottle-necked building with a clock tower that rose higher than the church steeple, but only just. Its red bricks were bleached by centuries of sunlight, and at night, when all else was dark, multicolored lights lit the face of the clock. A new color for each day of the week.

It was another quiet day in their quiet little town.

“Just ring one of us if you need us to bring you anything to eat. Okay, honey?”

Mark said, “Will do,” and she hung up the phone.

“Did you have any idea Kerry was popping pills?” Donnie asked her, pulling Harriet’s attention from the window.

She shook her head. “None.” Then she paused, her eyes returning to the window. “Though, I suppose it does explain some things.”

Donnie rose and moved to stand beside her. He waved at the Cabot’s, slowly making their way around town. “I suppose it does.”

Where is she?

Jeannie couldn’t sleep. She’d pretended long enough for Mark to carry her to their bedroom and rest her on the bed, but the moment he’d shut the door behind him, she’d sat up and looked around. Uncertain of what to do.

But still, that same question plagued her: Where was Kerry?

Worry clutched at her like something beastly, digging in its claws.

In the mirror, she could see white hairs threaded through the dark—at the age of thirty-eight. She would have to dye it soon, if it kept on like this.

She thought of going into work, to see if she could help at all, maybe try to take her mind off things. Jeannie worked at Hilltown House, a retirement home in the next town over. Her father had left her a large sum in his will when he died, so Jeannie never had to work a day in her life—but she did. And she would. But it was nice to know she didn’t have to. It took the stress off things.

Only, now there was nothing but stress.

Her stomach was in knots, and every time she allowed herself some peace of mind, thinking of something merry—her birthday, their last town bonfire, Bellriver’s “Summer’s Ending Way Too Fast” Festival. But every time her mind rose above Kerry and her absence, she saw her face and was instantly reminded. Of their fight.

Of the moment Jeannie, pill bottle in hand, had confronted her.

Like she needed that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach to keep her from floating away.

“They’re not mine,” Kerry said, planting her foot. She looked juvenile, like a child caught in the act.

“Like hell they’re not.” Jeannie had been livid. But more than that, deeper than that, she’d been afraid.

She never had any kids of her own. She didn’t know what she was doing, how to deal with something like this. Jeannie only knew how to be afraid. Afraid that this perfect existence they’d created for themselves was flawed. Deeply.

“They help me sleep,” Kerry claimed.

“Lie.”

“It’s not. Really. I only take one a day.”

“Lie.”

“They’re prescribed.”

“To someone else!” yelled Jeannie, throwing down the bottle.

Their fight had gone on. And Kerry had left shortly after that.

Now she was gone. Late. But where was she?

Who is she with?

Why hasn’t she come home?

Where is she where is she where is she—

Jeannie had had enough. She got out of bed and moved to her dresser. She opened up the third drawer from the bottom and pushed aside the clothes piled there to reveal the false back where she hid her cigarettes.

Mark didn’t know she smoked. Or, rather, that she still smoked. And, really, Jeannie didn’t—it was only at moments like this, when there was no outrunning the worry, that gnawing pain in her gut, that she blazed one up.

It wasn’t often. But, as Jeannie opened their French windows, throwing the double doors wide out over her garden and sitting on the sill, she suddenly realized just how increasingly often she was smoking.

Mark was a contractor, which meant that if he wasn’t hired for a job, he was at home. And lately he’d been at home a lot, and though she loved him to death, he would never stop trying to fix every single one of her problems. And right now, she needed a break from it. From everything.

Her hand trembled as she brought the cigarette to her lips, her eyes darting between the world outside and the crack under the door.

Every couple had their secrets, Jeannie reminded herself.

Sometimes secrets were good.

Sometimes.

Some. Times.

She repeated the word over and over in her head until it no longer felt like anything in her mouth.

And then she watched the window. Watched and waited. And waited.

Where is she?

And waited.

Christian Mercer didn’t realize he was falling until it was too late to catch himself.

He hit the ground in the field and rolled, and Andi couldn’t help but laugh, clutching at her mouth to keep herself silent, contained. One moment her superior officer was walking the grounds, staking poles into the earth around which he could cordon off the body, and the next he’d vanished.

When Mercer popped back up, like a groundhog making an appearance, he rubbed his head and looked down. Grass stuck up from his clothes and his hair, but he was too focused on what sat on the ground before him to really care.

“What is it?” Andi asked when she could control herself.

“Darcy, I think I found something.”

Officer Mercer bent, delving back into the grass, and when next his head popped up again, he held something above his head.

“Is that a camera?” Little Verne asked from where he sat back by the road, having finished coning off the area.

“It is.”

Mercer exited the field with Andi in tow and motioned for her to ready one of the larger evidence bags. In his hand was a D3400 Nikon, its lens smashed to smithereens and its back screen equally broken. Andi recognized it from that one photography class she’d taken back in college. Her roommate had had the same one.

“I guess we’ve got ourselves a murder weapon,” she said. “I bet that piece of hard plastic we found in her hair is part of the camera.”

Mercer didn’t look so sure. “Then where’s the blood?” He shook his head. “Why go to the efforts of cleaning the camera of blood if he was just going to leave it behind with the body?”

Andi didn’t have an answer.

“We’ll send it out to get fingerprinted,” Mercer told her. “It might be Kerry’s, but we can’t be too certain.” He showed her the camera. “Besides, this was deliberately broken. Not even dropping it on concrete would break it like this, much less the soft ground that we found it on.”

“But she didn’t die here,” Andi said.

“No,” said Mercer. “I don’t believe that she did.”

Andi handed him the bag, but before Mercer dropped it in, he flicked open a panel in its side and, with the tips of his fingernails, pried out a small SD card.

“Think it’s still intact?”

Mercer looked at her. “I think there’s only one way to find out.” He lifted it, holding it only by the edges, and as he held it to the light, he noticed a greasy fingerprint on the back of the card. Small, a woman’s most likely. But intact. He wondered if it still worked.

“We’ll send it in for fingerprinting,” he told her. “When it’s ready, I’ll tell Hilltown PD to let you know so you can pick it up. We’ll see what kind of photos are on there, then.”

Andi nodded. “Did you call the medical examiner?”

“Yeah, Frannie McKinnon.”

“She’s on her way?”

“He, actually,” Mercer corrected, “and yes. Should be here within the hour.” He nudged his chin towards the small notepad sticking out of her belt. “You took notes?”

“Tried to be as detailed as possible,” she said, handing him the book.

He flipped it open and read. Her notes were good, detailed. Precise. Like she’d done this before, which he knew for certain she hadn’t. Not for real, anyway.

“When you get a chance, I need you to start canvasing the street. Knock on doors and ask potential witnesses who live on this road whether they’ve seen anything suspicious. A stranger walking. A car they don’t recognize. Maybe someone saw something they didn’t understand but didn’t think anything of it.”

“You got it.”

Andi made for her truck, and it was then that Mercer noticed she was limping slightly, clutching at her side.

“You okay?”

Without looking back, she said, “The damn deer put up a fight.”

Mercer couldn’t help but grin.

Andi spent part of the afternoon canvassing the street. Though, unlike the door-to-door houses back in New Mexico—where most homes looked identical, some with small wrought iron fences to guard what little yards they had, and only a few feet of space between each—the streets of Bellriver were mostly made up of dense woodland and, to her bewilderment, wandering chickens.

Cross Road, the street alongside which the body was found, connected two non-busy roads that delved deep into the countryside. One, Old Merlow Road to the North, went to Heathshire Farm, while the other, Highland Haven Road, to the South, went on for miles and ended in Filcher Pond, open only to the residents of the street.

Down each of these roads, within a mile radius of the body, Andi came across nine houses which, while making her task all the easier, she knew wouldn’t provide her with any real information. On streets like those, people didn’t walk to the neighbor’s house, they drove—they had to, unless they were up for a hike. Which meant, unless someone was inching their way along in their truck and happened to see a murder, no one would know anything. Not anything useful, anyway.

Bellriver wasn’t like New Mexico. Everyone was older. Quieter. Like their lifeblood ran with the history they’d been born from.

Still, they’d had their first murder in almost a decade. And out there right now, someone had blood on their hands.

And someone—anyone—had to have seen Kerry Greaves before she died.

“And you didn’t see anything unusual, sir?”

“I didn’t say that,” said old Mr. Maybeck, setting down his tea. He was in his seventies, which, in Bellriver, was actually pretty young.

Andi, notebook in hand, quirked a brow. This’d sparked her interest. “So, you did see something?”

Maybeck nodded, his eyes going to her tea.

With a small sigh, Andi fought to keep herself from rolling her eyes, and took a long drink from her cup.

He’s stalling. Anything to keep her there—to finally have some company.

“You live here alone?”

“My wife died years ago. Cancer.” He said it so casually. “The kids don’t visit. They used to.” He shrugged, drinking slowly. “But not anymore.”

Andi, uncertain of what to say, of how to comfort this man, simply took up her tea—chamomile, probably the worst tasting thing in the world—and downed the rest of her cup with a bright smile.

When it was done, she set town her cup and fought a gag, shaking out her head.

“So, you were saying.”

Maybeck nodded. “I saw that weird farmer traipsing through the pasture with yet another dog. Maybe he’s your guy. Seemed pretty weird, walking out there. I’d ask him.”

Sighing, she flipped closed her book and thanked the man, both for his time and the tea. But as old Mr. Maybeck walked her towards the door, he stopped her and said, “Did something bad happen, miss?” He stood there in his own doorway and, shivering against the cold, buttoned the top of his cardigan and braced himself.

Andi turned back but she saw that he wasn’t watching her. Instead, wide eyed, he squinted up and down the street, staring from where he stood on his front porch, up on the hill. “Are bad things coming back to Bellriver?”

“Back?” She shook her head. “What do you mean?”

But Mr. Maybeck only offered a small shake of the head. “Best that you don’t know.”

He looked to his left, through the trees that guarded his property on both sides, and Andi followed his gaze—wondering if he wasn’t really staring at the trees, but at what stood beyond them, down a ways. Standing singularly in that pasture on the hill.

The Harrowing Tree.

Maybeck closed the door without another word, leaving Andi alone, staring off at nothing. And maybe, somewhere, something.

Frannie McKinnon showed up later than he said, and when Mercer questioned him on said lateness, the man only replied as flamboyantly as one possibly could by saying: “The rest of the world is simply too early.”

He simpered, and a moment later, said, “Perhaps not the body, though. They’re always somewhat late.”

With medical bag in hand, the man set up shop beside the body in the field. While he worked, a small team of officers from the next town over had arrived and were further analyzing the scene, working to better secure it. Meanwhile, Mercer oversaw everything as the presiding officer.

“She’s been dead a while,” Frannie later said. “I would put the time of death at somewhere between sixteen to eighteen hours ago. She’s been here overnight. Bludgeoned to death. Nothing I’m not familiar with, though she was definitely moved. That,” he said, “is a certainty.”

“There would be more blood, right?” asked Mercer.

Frannie nodded. “That’s right. But there are also clear signs of liver mortis on the front of her body, which means she didn’t die on her back, Officer Mercer.”

“She was flipped?”

“Flipped,” nodded Frannie. “Dragged. Carried. Dropped.” He sighed, shaking his head. “It was not a good night for our Miss Kerry Greaves. But,” he paused, “what is odd is that she still had her wallet and money on her. Which, ideally, as you can probably guess, generally rules out your basic robbery. And in a small town like this”—he glanced around—“I’m not all that surprised.”

Mercer nodded his understanding. “Thanks, Frannie.”

The man nodded, planting his hands on his hips. Then, from his bag, he drew out what looked like a small statue. “I also found this on the ground beside the body, pressed into the ground so that it was standing up straight.”

“Is that an owl? What am I looking at, Frannie?”

“That’s definitely an owl. What it’s doing here, though, I couldn’t tell you.” He motioned with his hands towards the other officers, though it looked more like he was showing Mercer his jazz hands, and said, “But I suppose that’s their job.”

Mercer studied the statue in his gloved hand. “Any idea what it could mean?”

“None,” said Frannie, swaggering forward on his toes, hip swayed to the side. “But, from the looks of it, it was left here for a purpose. Meaning someone intended for you to find this body, Officer Mercer.”

“You think it’s a calling card, then.”

“I think it’s a warning.”

Later that day, Officer Darcy got a call from Hilltown. They had the SD card Mercer had found in the camera. The prints had come up as a Miss Kerry Greaves—which, though not entirely what they would have liked, was pretty much what they figured would be the results of the test.

Andi drove the thirty-five minutes into the village at the base of the mountain where Bellriver sat. Despite its name, Hilltown was pretty flat, stocked with your basic fast food joints—however minimal—and their own small restaurants.

On her way back to town with the SD card, Andi stopped off at The Hilltown Hatchery, a local takeout breakfast joint, and ate an egg and cheese omelet squashed between two croissants while she drove.

It wasn’t as good as anything from the Depot, but it was far better than she expected it to be.

She hurried back up to the second floor of the old building now used as Bellriver PD and, washing her hands in the sink at the back of the room—if only to warm her fingers, more than anything—quickly hurried to a computer and plugged in the SD card.

A short while later, Andi rolled her chair over to the radio on the far wall and called, “Mercer?”

There was dead air for a few moments before his voice came back, staticky and flat. “Find anything, trainee?”

“Yeah, actually. The SD card you pulled out of the camera was intact,” she said.

“That’s good.”

“But it also wasn’t our victim’s.”

A pause. Other voices could be heard in the background, like he was stopping to talk to someone else. Then Mercer asked, “Did the prints bring up a match?”

“They did,” she nodded. “Kerry’s. They had her prints on file from when she applied to work at Hilltown Elementary about a decade ago. Anyway,” she continued into the radio, curling her fingers around the small SD card and absently rotating it. “The pictures on the card weren’t taken by her. They were taken of her. From afar. And what’s weird, sir, is that she doesn’t seem to know that her picture was being taken at all.”

“So, someone followed her,” suggested Officer Mercer.

“But why leave the camera?”

“Unless they didn’t mean to. Or maybe it’s her own.”

“So, someone killed this girl, and then put their own SD card into her camera?”

“Or made her do it for them.”

Even through the radio, Andi could hear his sigh. “Frannie came by, Darcy. He finished going over the body. The team from Hilltown has arrived.”

“Did he give you an estimate of time of death?”

Mercer said, “By his guess, sixteen to eighteen hours.”

“So less than a day.”

“That’s what he said.” Dead air. Then, “There’s something else,” Mercer continued. “Frannie found something in the grass that we missed. It looks like a statue.”

“Statue? Statue of what?”

“Of an owl,” came his reply. “About four inches tall. Maybe less.”

“Do you think she had it on her when she died? Like some kind of token?”

“It’s possible, but Frannie found it standing up, facing the wound. As though it had been placed, not dropped. Simply left behind.” He stopped. “And besides, it wasn’t near her hands—there was too wide of a gap. There’s no way—it had to have been placed.

Andi thought for a moment, thinking back to her years in school. “You mean it was left there. Sort of like a signature. A killer’s calling card?”

“More or less.”

She gave a shallow nod, suddenly remembering that she was alone. “I finished canvasing. Didn’t come up with anything entirely useful, though.”

“Figured as much,” Mercer grumbled into the radio. “Swing back by the scene, then. It might be more useful to have you here.”

“I’m on my way, sir.”

“And be prepared, Darcy. This is going to be a long day,” he added by way of dismissal.

Andi rose from her chair, shoving it back towards her own desk across the way. It was empty, save for a small name placard on it with her name spelled wrong: Officer Anderson Darby. She hoped her replacement came in before the name caught on around there.

“Before you go,” came a calm, quiet voice from the doorway, startling Andi, “do you mind giving me a ride?”

There, leaning on the threshold, was a tall, somewhat slender, middle-aged woman. Blond ringlets hung around her shoulders, dark as though wet from a shower. But it was her eyes that caught Andi off guard—eyes that were sharp, piercing, green; simultaneously searching and assessing.

Determining. Shaping an opinion of this new officer in town.

It was the way most people had taken to looking at Andi. After all, as Mercer assured her again and again, Bellriver didn’t get any visitors. At least, none that weren’t annual guests, family visiting from afar. Summer folks vacationing.

Andi Darcy was new. Fresh meat. A stranger.

The woman’s red-and-black flannel shirt hung down past her waist, far too big for her, with two pockets above the breasts. It was clearly a man’s shirt, maybe her husband’s, though she wore it well, and made it her own.

It didn’t hide the gun holstered at her side.

“Government-issued nine-millimeter,” she said, her voice stony, cold, in question to Andi’s silent stare.

“You’re a cop?”

The woman’s lips curled at the edges, forming a small smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes—or maybe they did. Andi couldn’t tell. Her eyes were just so sharp. So unbelievably penetrating.

“You could say that.” She blinked, searching the station, maybe looking for Mercer—someone familiar?—and paused, nudging her chin in the direction of the radio. “I heard you’ve got . . . a body.”

Andi’s eyes widened. Her mouth worked, searching for the right words.

From her back pocket, the woman pulled out a badge; it glinted in the soft office lighting. “Chief Lizzie Hastings,” she said, offering her hand; it was callused and covered in lines, small scars—then a larger one, arching across the palm of her right hand. “And you must be Anderson”—she looked past her at the nameplate on Andi’s desk—“Darby.”

Andi stood stock still, then almost vaulted forward to shake the woman’s hand, groaning on the inside at the mispronunciation of her name.

“Darcy,” she quietly corrected, scowling back at the name plate on the desk.

Smiling softly, Chief Hastings followed her gaze and gave a small laugh. “It’s funny. Back in my day as Officer Hastings, they used to hide my name plate and give me a new one. Always said a different name. A man’s name. One day I’d be Fred, the next it was Samuel, or James.” Her brows rose and she expelled a breath. “That was a different time, though. And I’m the only one left standing.”

Andi realized all too suddenly that she was still shaking the woman’s hand, and quickly dropped it. More like threw it down, really. Overcome by a buzzing, nervous energy and an uncertain anxiety that was just near palpable.

In an attempt not to shrink in on herself like the dying star her father often compared her to growing up when her anxiety got the better of her, Andi clasped her hands together and said somewhat too abruptly, “You’re female.”

Lizzie Hastings blinked, staring down at the young girl’s hands. And then the chief grabbed her breasts and exclaimed, “Oh, thank god! For a moment there I thought something had happened.” She winked at the young trainee and sauntered—not walked but sauntered—deeper into the station, despite the unmistakable limp in her left leg.

“I’m sorry,” Andi quickly said, closing her mouth. “I . . .”

“Kit didn’t mention that, did he, Anderson?”

Slowly, she shook her head. And then snapping back to life, added, “Andi. You can call me Andi.”

A small nod. “Kit’s out with the body?”

She paused. “Kit?”

“Officer Mercer.”

Stunned, Andi blinked. “He’s at the crime scene, ma’am. Over on Hollow Hill.”

“Hollow Hill, eh?” she asked, her eyes going wide. “Can you drive me over?”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

“Stop calling me that,” Chief Hastings said. “Ma’am. You make me sound old.” After a brief pause, she corrected, “Older than I am.”

“Yes, ma’am. Miss—Chief!”

Andi grabbed her keys from her desk and led the woman out, mentally chastising herself with every step she took.

“So, in the weeks since you’ve began, Kit never mentioned I was a woman?”

She shook her head. “He always just called you ‘the Chief.’ You’d think context would have supplied me with the fact that you are, actually, a woman. But . . .”

“You’d think,” Chief Lizzie Hastings said with a smile. “But, then again, he didn’t even tell you his name was Kit, now did he?”

“No, Chief. He did not.”

“Thought he could get away from hiding from his own name,” she laughed. “Well, Andi. I’m back. And things are about to change for you.” She winked. “But don’t worry,” Lizzie said, climbing into her truck. “Change isn’t always a bad thing.”

Andi swallowed deeply. She wasn’t entirely certain this was true.

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