The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Four

FOUR

Earlier that morning, Chief Lizzie Hastings began her day as she always did. By talking to a ghost.

She sat in a rusty, rickety lawn chair out in the front lawn, just off the front porch of the log cabin her grandfather had built back in his day. It was a legacy—of wood and blood and sweat, and years upon years spent building something greater than himself. A family. And a place to house one.

Lizzie stared off into the grass, very much in need of mowing now that her husband was dead. The thought of asking a neighbor’s kid to do it had crossed her mind on multiple occasions, but their cabin was nestled so deep in the valley that formed the base of all Bellriver’s hills and pastoral hummocks that there wasn’t a neighbor for miles.

It was just as Ben had liked it.

Just them.

She sat there, legs crossed, a fleece blanket pulled up to her chin, nestled in her flannel, and cradled her husband’s mug between her hands for warmth.

“Hey, that’s my mug,” he said from the chair beside her, and Lizzie rolled her eyes.

“It’s not like you’ll be needing it, really,” she told him, drinking deeply.

“Yeah, rub it in,” said his ghost with a snort. He shook his head, looking into the distance. “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking?”

“It’s coffee.”

“And?”

“And?” She smirked. “Why does there always have to be an ‘and’?”

He laughed, just once. “Because with you, there always is.”

Again, Lizzie drank, and she smiled into her mug.

Then, she said, “Whisky.”

“Making it Irish, I see.”

She stared, not into the distance, the open field, the long drive leading off towards town. But at the lawn chair beside her. Empty. Save for the gray-black head of hair, those round, hazel eyes now staring back at her, unblinking, and that rich, deep, baritone voice—the parts of him she remembered most. The parts she still clung to.

A light breeze whispered through the grass, through her husband.

Chief Hastings shuddered.

“Want some?”

“I would,” he said, “if I weren’t dead.”

Lizzie nodded. “Puts a bit of a damper on things, doesn’t it?”

“Unfortunately.” He nudged his chin at the whisky bottle at the foot of her chair, quirking a silver brow. “What’s the occasion?”

Leaning her head back, eyes cast to the sky, Lizzie Hastings smiled. “Vacations almost over, Ben. I’ll drink while I still can.” Then, squinting against the sun, she glanced his way—at the empty chair, and the ghost of a man who’d promised to grow old with her.

“Do you think I’m ready? To go back?”

A slight shrug. “Do you think you’re ready?”

Hastings shook her head. “I’m ready to talk to someone real.”

“Hurtful bitch.”

And Lizzie laughed, the same way she did every morning. The way she always had with Ben.

“You didn’t answer the question,” he said at last, when she’d fallen silent. “Do you think you’re ready?”

Lizzie touched the scar that arched its way across the left side of her skull, now hidden by her hair.

And drank.

Like the morning before that, and the one before that.

Andi Darcy drove at a meager pace of fifteen-miles per-hour, gripping the wheel at ten and two. White knuckled, rolling along, only breathing every six heartbeats. Praying the chief would say something. Anything.

Beside her, Lizzie Hastings gripped the seat beneath her and tried, with all her might, to pretend like every time she closed her eyes, she didn’t see that same truck hurtling towards them. The truck that’d killed her husband.

So, she kept her eyes open. Wide. Picked one spot on the horizon and clung to it, fixatedly, for dear life.

Hollow Hill, where the body had been discovered, was only about a mile or two out from the station, but Andi felt they’d been driving for at least an hour before her truck crept into view of the Harrowing Tree, standing over the town.

Keeping watch. Standing guard.

But of what?

Darcy parked off to the side of Cross Road and hopped down. She walked around the truck and opened the chief’s door, but she simply sat there, staring—not ahead, and not out at the field, at the bald spot in the pasture where Andi knew the body lay.

But up the hill a ways, at the Harrowing Tree. Like she knew something Andi didn’t—something only known by her, the tree, and the whispers of the breeze. Like ghosts, speaking hurriedly, in hushed undertones.

And then the chief said the most astonishing thing.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“The tree, ma’am?” asked Andi, looking up at the old, skeletal structure, but the chief simply blinked.

Darcy wondered if she looked as surprised as she felt. If so, the chief didn’t notice. Or didn’t care.

Hastings unbuckled and slipped down onto the dirt, her brown worker boots slapping the ground with a loud thump.

“Not just the tree, Darcy,” she said. “Not just the tree.”

Then she walked away, leaving Andi standing there, staring. She slammed the truck door in a daze, and quickly followed the chief as she made her way into the pasture.

There was almost no one there—which was good. The less people that knew the better. A few of the officers she recognized from Hilltown when she’d retrieved the SD card earlier that day. A small forensics team scoured the ground, also, coming in and out of view in the tall grass. And there was a man talking to Officer Mercer, who Andi guessed to be Frannie McKinnon, the medical examiner.

The only other attendee was the guest of honor: the body.

No one was lined up to see what was happening. There were no spectators hooting and hawing, desperate to know what was happening. No one eager to see who the body was.

Chief Hastings didn’t even know, herself. Not yet, anyway.

That was the good thing, though, about the small town of Bellriver. If a tree fell in the woods, maybe it made a sound—but no one would be around to hear it fall.

The people of this town kept to themselves, for the most part, and when something like this did occur—something much less severe, like the occasional DWI or the case of hunting outside of hunting season—it usually went unnoticed for a good while. At least until the weekly Bellriver Ringer was printed, and then everyone would read about it in the local newspaper. And when they did that, they could at least pretend like it’d happened somewhere else, in another town. Far, far away from the safety of Bellriver, New Hampshire.

KitKat,” Chief Hastings called across the field, and several heads turned.

Mercer, though, did not look pleased, until he realized who’d said it.

“Chief?” He started from the field, motioning for the other investigating officers to continue working. “What are you doing here?” He shot Andi an accusatory glance for not warning him that she was coming. But in Andi’s own defense, she hadn’t known who the woman was—and she hadn’t known the Chief she’d spent the last two weeks learning about and imagining wasn’t even a man.

She was better.

“Technically,” Lizzie said, “I’m not chief until tomorrow.”

“You don’t stop being chief simply because you’re too injured to get out of bed.”

“Tell that to the State,” she said with a mirthless laugh, and started forward into the field. “So, who’s the body?” she asked no one in particular, glancing between Mercer and Andi.

“Kerry Greaves,” they both said, talking over each other so that it came out as a mess of gibberish.

Mercer waved his hand, indicating that Andi should speak, and she repeated the name for Chief Hastings to hear.

“You’re kidding?” The chief shook her head, and upon approaching the body, immediately looked away—not as though it was too much to bear, but like it was out of some juvenile act of defiance: if she couldn’t see the body, maybe it didn’t exist. Maybe it wasn’t dead.

“It’s always the good ones that die hard.”

Andi thought that was one way of putting it. Though, from what she’d learned, if a body turned up, oftentimes there was a reason. And not a good one, if it was enough to be killed over.

Hastings crouched before the body. Mercer handed her a fresh pair of gloves.

“Ah, where would I be without you,” she joked, squinting.

“Alone with the stiff.” He paused, cutting a glance to Andi. “The dead body, too.”

His trainee looked like she was just itching to say something.

“So,” Chief Hastings said, straightening. “Off the cuff. What can you tell me about the body? What are we looking for?”

Andi stood up straighter. Her eyes went to the body on the ground. “From what we’ve gathered, she was left here—”

“No.”

“No?”

“Not what we know. Tell me what you know.” Hastings gave her a reassuring nod to tell her she could do it, prompting her to speak.

Andi swallowed, breathing slowly out her nose. “The body was moved, and—”

“What tells you that?”

“At first glance,” she tentatively began, “her limbs. If she was simply bludgeoned to death, her arms wouldn’t be thrown like that. And the lack of blood—”

“Could be ruled out. Think of internal bleeding.”

“I did. I mean,” she said, “I think that if the face is this disfigured, there would be a lot of blood. Not just internal, but external. The flecks of blood on her face and the dried bits in her hair tell me that she was bleeding. A lot, by the looks of it.”

“Okay.”

“The dirt streaks on her back and arms tell me that she was dragged. And a broken camera was found a few feet away from her body.”

Hastings stared. “How many feet?”

“Enough that it wasn’t just dropped,” continued Andi. “And that camera”—she motioned with her head back towards Mercer’s cruiser, where the evidence was being kept—“was broken far more than it would have been if it had been simply dropped.”

“Why here?”

“It’s Hollow Hill,” Andi said, sounding like this explained everything.

“Meaning?”

“With the controversy Mercer—”

“Officer Mercer.”

“With the controversy Officer Mercer told me about regarding the Harrowing Tree,” she said, glancing up at the towering shadow, stretching up to blot out the light, “I’d say the body was dumped here for a reason.”

“That being?” asked the chief.

“As a message.” Her eyes went to Mercer’s, who watched with interest. “A threat.” Andi pointed towards the large tree on the rise. “Someone wants that tree cut down. And they might want it bad enough to kill.”

Slowly, taking this in, the chief nodded.

“So, someone killed her. Broke her camera,” she observed.

“Correct.” Andi bent back down, hovering over the victim. “I found a fragment of hard plastic in her hair. At first glance, I’d suggest it’s a part of the camera. Only, if she’d been bludgeoned with her own instrument, why wasn’t there blood on it? And there weren’t any major pieces broken off of it. So where did the fragment come from?”

Chief Hastings stooped low to the ground. “Who said it was her own camera?”

“From what we found on the SD card—”

“What did you find? Any fingerprints?”

“Only those of Kerry Greaves. As for the pictures, they were of the victim.” Andi nodded her chin towards the body. “They were of Kerry. Taken from afar, by another source. Like someone was watching her.”

“Was she aware.”

“No, ma’am.” Andi paused, and corrected herself, saying, “No, Chief.”

“Did Kerry have her camera on her in the photos?”

“Yes, Chief.”

The woman nodded, tucking a stray lock of her blond curls behind one ear. “Continue.”

“Well, the photos on the SD card would suggest that this was not her camera. But why would the killer break his own camera and leave it with her? It must be hers. Doesn’t it?”

Hastings stared. “Your suggesting whoever did this killed her, then broke her camera, and then replaced her SD card with his own. Why?”

“Incriminating evidence,” Mercer forced out, cutting his way in. “Maybe the victim managed to snap a picture of her killer.”

She gave a small nod. “Then that’s what we’re looking for.”

“An SD card,” Mercer said, nodding as well.

“Also, a reason,” said Chief Hastings. “Anything that might provide us with a motive.” She motioned towards the victim’s wounds. “You see something like this, and you think anger.”

“Or crime of passion,” suggested Andi, sounding hopeful.

The Chief shook her head. “Emotion is the driving force for either. But you must look closer. See the differences between love and hate. Passion and revenge.”

“How?”

Hastings looked at her and rose. Andi stood as well.

“By listening,” the woman told her.

Mercer pulled out a small bag from his coat pocket, and handed it to the chief. “Found this beside the body.”

“Is this stone?” she asked, carefully handling the small statue.

Andi’s brows rose. “An owl?”

“I’ll see what I can dig up,” Mercer said, tapping the statue, and Hastings nodded, handing it back to him.

“I’m interested to see what you find.” She nodded and looked again at Andi. “Look, you’re new. And on any other occasion, you’d still be handling dispatch. But we need all hands on deck for this, Darcy.” She looked between both Officer Mercer and Andi. “Work together on this. And communicate. Anything you notice, don’t assume the other does, too. Got it?”

“Got it,” Mercer said.

Andi nodded.

Lizzie Hastings had seen her share of bodies. A native of New Hampshire, she’d moved out west for work and only came back when she’d had enough. Enough of the bodies, enough of the crime. And for a man—her husband.

She blinked.

Ben.

Still, all these months later, the chief’s memory was foggy. The old days unwritten, almost as if they’d never happened. Only bits and pieces remained, like fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, found underneath a sofa long after the rest had been thrown out.

Lizzie remembered Ben. Remembered his smile. His laugh.

But not the day they met. Not their wedding. Not even falling in love.

She couldn’t remember the days leading up to the accident, either, or the days after. Nor could she remember the driver. The man who’d killed her husband.

Hastings only saw the truck over her husband’s shoulder, from where she was sitting in the passenger’s seat of their Volvo. She could remember it growing bigger, closer, and the last breath she took—the last smile her husband, Ben flashed her before it all went dark.

They’d been hit from the side. And Ben had died on impact.

She trembled, her fingers clenched down at her sides.

For a moment, standing in that field, Lizzie found herself back in that hospital bed. Doctors and nurses swarming like bees to a hive. She was weak. Too weak to push herself off from the pillows at her back.

She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe.

Every single part of her was exhausted. Even her heart.

Now she was alive. Well. She walked with a limp. Had a few scars. Carried the death of her husband with her every where she went. But the pain, the remorse, the grief—it wasn’t there.

The impact of her skull during the accident had shaken something loose—or, at least that’s the way Hastings preferred to think of it.

She remembered Ben. Remembered loving him. Remembered more than she thought she would.

But she didn’t feel the pain. The loss. Not like she should.

There was a numbness, deep inside of her. Taking root, like something dark.

Just as there was now, staring out at the bald-patch in the face of Hollow Hill.

“She’s observant,” Chief Hastings couldn’t help but admit, bending her head back towards Mercer’s. “I don’t even think you would have known what to do if you’d been faced with something like this at her age.”

“She practically is my age,” groaned Mercer.

“I forgot. You’re turning twenty-five for the fifth time this year.”

“Sixth.” He rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. “I do like her, though.”

“That’s big of you to admit,” Hastings observed with the slightest of smiles. “Has she thawed your frigid heart in the time I’ve been away?”

He sighed. “Say what you will, you have to admit she’s pretty good.”

“That diligent this fresh out of college? Yeah, she’s good. But I have my doubts.”

“As do I.”

Together, they watched Andi as she spoke to some of the investigating officers from Hilltown. Upon first glance, she looked natural. But the closer you looked, Mercer noticed, the more you saw how she stood out. How, when asked a question, she’d shrink into herself. Or, how she only seemed to speak when one of the officers asked her a question.

Her arms were crossed, too. He wondered if she realized just how unflattering she looked. How weak. Timid. Small she seemed.

Finally, Mercer turned back to the chief. “Are you ready to talk about what happened?”

“No. Not yet, anyway,” she said, nodding. “Not until I can wrap my head around this first.”

“Memories aren’t coming back?”

“It’s blank. Everything from that day. Just blank.”

She didn’t tell him about the truck, barreling towards them.

“And your husband . . .?” Mercer knew he shouldn’t bring it up. But he couldn’t ignore it. Couldn’t just walk past it. He’d known the man, too. Known him well.

“My husband is dead.”

And that was the end of that. Mercer didn’t bring it up again.

Her husband was dead. And so was his friend.

They removed the body just before sundown, when the sky set the Harrowing Tree and all its many branches on fire.

New England nights always grew darker early, Andi was learning.

Mercer watched them go, carrying the stretcher with Kerry’s body strapped to its surface from the pasture. He followed them with his eyes, his hands in his pockets, and wondered, not simply who could have done something to such a kind, young woman. Someone they all knew. All loved.

But he also wondered what Kerry had done to deserve it.

With his trainee by his side, he remained, standing out on Hollow Hill long after forensics had left, and Mercer stared out at the yellow police tape, billowing gently in the breeze, cutting lines through the tall grass.

Then he shifted his gaze towards the Harrowing Tree, at the stars that’d begun to speckle the sky above, beyond, glistening between its branches.

His eyes lowered, towards the base of the tree.

And what was buried underneath.

“It’s beautiful?” Andi asked, following his gaze. “I really don’t see what the chief means.”

“Not the tree, Darcy,” Mercer said.

“Then what?”

That evening, Anderson Darcy lounged on her sofa, chewing on a badly burnt piece of microwavable pizza, and stared at the piles upon piles of boxes she’d yet to unpack.

“Have you finished unpacking?” her father’s voice came through the speaker on her phone. “You’ve certainly been there long enough.”

Andi gnawed on the rubber that was the piece of crust in her hands and nodded. “Yeah,” she lied. “A long time ago. All settled in.”

The boxes seemed to stare at her, then. As if sensing the lie.

“Anything exciting happen, yet, Dove?”

Andi, dressed in baggy sweatpants and an overly large sweatshirt, her hair still wet from the shower, stretched out across the sofa so that her eyes were on the ceiling—and she thought about the case.

About Kerry Greaves.

The broken camera.

The photos on the SD card.

She shuddered, closing her eyes.

“Not yet, dad. But it’s nice here. I think you’d like it.”

“I’m sure I would, Dove.” She could imagine his smile, and it warmed her in a way that nothing else could. “When are you going to invite me out there? Or do I have to beg?”

“Not yet, dad. I’ve been busy. I’m still settling in.”

“Say no more, Dove. But I’m excited to see it, anyway.”

“I know, dad,” she said. “I know.”

“Well, I’ll let you get back to things. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”

“Thanks, dad.” And she hung up the phone, quick, before he could say anything else.

Before she could let it slip that the safe town he’d shipped her off to had just had its first murder in almost a decade.

Turning onto her side, Andi curled into herself, hugging her knees, and slept.

She dreamed of a small town, a young girl. And somewhere, a tree.

For the rest of that night, Mercer sat in his boxers and typed away at his ex-wife’s old laptop, researching owl statues.

It was midmorning by the time he finally succumbed to sleep, with nothing to show for his work other than a dozen ads on where he could buy owl statues for his garden online, and arts and craft kits for kids, in which they can decorate and paint their own ceramic owl.

Mercer, eyes bloodshot, fell asleep to the image of an owl, staring, eyes wide, beak open.

As if calling out to him.

So far, the owl statue was a dead end.

And perhaps the greatest lead they had.

While the rest of the world slept, Lizzie Hastings looked at the pictures Anderson Darcy had sent her earlier that evening.

Ninety-three in total, all quick snap-shots. As if the shooter had held down the button on the camera, or pulled back the trigger with rapid fire.

They all displayed the same thing. Woods, trees, branches, a hill leading down. And at the center of it all, a small, wooden porch—part of a house. And there, on that porch: Kerry Greaves.

Smiling. Talking. Laughing—but with who?

Someone was hidden from view, lost in the depth, hidden around the corner, behind a million-and-one-trees.

Hastings searched the images slowly, feeling a small spark of hope before the next one, thinking maybe—just maybe—it might contain some small fragment of a life. The owner of this secret home in the forest.

Her killer, maybe?

But then who took the photos?

Kerry wasn’t talking to her killer. She was being hunted.

For sport? For . . . what? What reason could someone have to kill a girl like Kerry?

Hastings stared at each photo, hardly blinking. Savoring each snapshot.

And in each, right at Kerry’s back, blending into the harsh lighting, was a single glint. A smudge of silver at her back, no wider than a thumbprint; it snaked its way along the backdrop.

Metal?

She stared and watched, waiting—for something to happen. For someone to enter the frame. Someone to tell her where Kerry had really died.

But with each photograph, Hastings told herself the same thing: whoever killed Kerry had already shot her. Tagged her. These pictures where proof enough of that.

Whoever killed Kerry had known where she was. But where was she?

And did the killer have help? The person she’s talking to . . .?

Again, and again, her eyes went that straight of silver. Still, frozen in time.

Could it just be light? But what lay beneath? Behind?

Where was this?

At long last, Lizzie Hastings shut off her computer and slipped, through the darkness of the log cabin, to her bedroom.

Her. Not their.

Her bedroom.

As she got into bed, she stared at the ceiling and contemplated calling Kit. Mercer was usually up this late, even on week nights, and he was often her go to when she was having trouble sleeping.

But the fact wasn’t that she couldn’t sleep—she just didn’t want to. Didn’t want to close her eyes, to sleep when someone was out there, a killer in their midst.

Didn’t want to sleep while her husband was dead. And even his ghost was quiet tonight.

Though, for some reason, something kept her from reaching for the phone.

It was the empty expanse beside her. The cold, shapeless form of the dark.

She had a king size bed with enough room for two people. And rather than reach for that phone, her hand traversed the land beside her, seeming to unroll and stretch, growing further and further away so that the end of the mattress could no longer be seen.

Lizzie had his pictures. Had his things. But the only thing she felt was her husband’s absence, and it was growing inside of her. Outside of her. All around, like this fowl darkness, spreading, bursting at the seams. But there was little that could be done, so she rolled onto her side and stared into the shadows.

The candle on her bedside table flickered.

She blew out the flame and embraced the dark, trying to remember what it was like to do so when she wasn’t alone.

In the darkness, her mind went to the Harrowing Tree.

And the body buried at its roots.

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