Donnie wasn’t sure what they were doing standing in the middle of the woods. He didn’t like the forests of Bellriver. They were dark, hazardous. One trip could claim you, leave you there, stranded. Alone. Luckily for Donnie Dooley, though, he wasn’t alone. And yet the silence did little to assure him of this.
They traipsed through the trees at the crest of Fernskeep Hill, where—though few knew it—a small suspension bridge hung atop a bubbling brook. Donnie rarely found his way out there. Too many bugs and slithering things, he’d say if only it wouldn’t bring about one of Hattie’s famous eye rolls.
Hattie was an optimist. Always sought the beauty in the pain. Was never quick to anger. But there were times, few and far between, in which—rare as it was—Hattie would let slip her annoyance in the roll of the eyes. Subtle but visible.
Donnie smiled at the thought and threw and arm around his friend.
“You good, Don?”
He nodded but didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Of everyone, Hattie Brackett knew Donnie the best; she could read him, inside and out. Always knew what was going on inside his head. Knew what he was thinking. What he was feeling. Could pick up on emotions that even Donnie couldn’t understand.
“You’re probably wondering what we’re doing out here?” Jeannie told them, bringing the group to a sudden halt.
Mark was there, his daughter on his shoulders, absently blinking around. Tanner, too, silent as a statue. He stood with the “Strange Sisters” Pennilyn Clarke and Teresa Hale—better known as Old Resa—though the two women, both having just celebrated their seventieth birthdays, were not sisters. In fact, they loathed that name. But a good majority of the town—the older generations, mostly—favored an older perspective towards two female lovers.
They became the Strange Sisters long after Old Resa had sold what’d been her daddy’s home before it was hers and moved across town to Pennilyn Clarke’s townhouse, just on the edge of the town common, and to the right side of the bed. Closest to the window—Resa liked the breeze. Both were retired now; Old Resa previously a baker in Pleasant Mill; Pennilyn a bus driver for the Hilltown school system.
Tanner wasn’t much of a speaker, Donnie knew. He was a good guy. Sensible. Always kind, and kinder still to the Strange Sisters. Tanner was the grandson of Old Resa’s best-friend, back in the day; he’d come to stay with them after his own mother had passed, and he’d never left. He’d bought a house of his own, right down the street from Jeannie and Mark’s, and he’d stayed—one of the newest members of Bellriver, even all these years later.
Donnie always suspected, though, despite Tanner’s wife, now gone, that he understood the two old ladies more than others because he, too, shared a similar sense of self when it came to his sexuality, though he’d never admit it—and Donnie would never bring it up.
It wasn’t his tale to tell, he always thought. Hattie suspected similarly, though, and Donnie—though Hattie always told him he was being stupid—couldn’t help but feel weird around Tanner.
It was stupid, after all. But it was only natural. Donnie’s own father turned out to be gay—it was the real reason behind his parent’s divorce, he later learned—and so Donnie Dooley, third of his name, never really knew how to handle men of his father’s own . . . capacity? Was that the right word?
“While I’m always up . . . for a nice jaunt . . . through the woods,” panted Old Resa, leaning her head against Tanner’s arms and panting raggedly, “what is it . . . you need . . . to show us?”
Old Resa was in her early seventies, just like Pennilyn, but she was a very short woman, and a little on the heavy side. She had short white hair and grass-green eyes that somehow always looked wet, almost like they were dewy. A beautiful woman in her prime—a stunner, really—but she’d lost her youth. It shone through at times, but this wasn’t one of them.
Tanner dropped Old Resa’s hand and wrapped his arm around her. When he tried to do the same with Pennilyn, she swatted his hand.
“It’s too hot for that crap,” she snapped.
“It’s like nine degrees out, Pennilyn.”
“Not in this skin.” And she tugged at the saggy waddle beneath her shin and gave it a slight tab, letting it jiggle against her old bones. “Trust me.”
Tanner flicked his gaze to Mark’s, who only shook his head, trying not to smile.
Jeannie, pulling down the zipper of her purple coat—“you look like something Barney couldn’t digest,” Pennilyn always told her—wandered towards a small sapling. Its leaves had all but fallen.
“Do you know what this place is?”
Harriet said, “Foster’s Haven.”
“This?” asked Pennilyn. She rolled her eyes. “You read too much.”
“No, she’s right.” Jeannie waved her hands, indicating the area around them. “Look at all the trees.”
Donnie peered closer. “They’re . . . different,” he said.
“Fosters,” Mark added, tipping up on his toes. “They’re not originally from here.”
“This was marked long before our time,” Jeannie began, leading the pack deeper into the woods, “by the very first settlers that passed through these woods as a place of refuge. Sanctuary.” And as she said this, they crested another small rise in the earth that ended in a bridge.
“Lorelai’s Bridge.” She moved to let the others see the old, wooden suspension bridge. It arched up a few feet, and at it’s very center, if you turned back around, there was an opening in the trees—especially now, when the leaves had all but drifted away—through which the entire town of Bellriver could be seen below.
Donnie scented the air; it smelled of wet leaves, rich soil. “Why Lorelai?” he asked. “Is that its official name?”
Jeannie shrugged. “Kerry said it looked like a Lorelai.”
“Can a bridge really look like an anything?”
Pennilyn scoffed and said, “Says the man who keeps one of those foldup travel spoons on him at all times. What do you call it again? Mac? T.J.?”
“Junior,” mumbled Donnie, scowling at the old bag. He felt in his back pocket for his spoon, while everyone watched. “What?” He shrugged. “You never know when you’re going to be offered food.”
Hattie rolled her eyes. “It’s a wonder you’re not obese.”
Donnie grinned, and looked back at Jeannie. “Fair point, though. Continue.”
“Kerry used to tell me about this place,” she said, looking from one friend to another. “Apparently she’d discovered it one day while taking pictures.” Jeannie nodded towards the trees that surrounded them. “This is supposed to be a place of peace. And I thought . . .”
Jeannie brought out a photograph, then. Followed by another.
“What’s that, dear?” asked Old Resa.
“Kerry, as you know, had difficulties with her parents. All her life. There was a reason,” she said, “that Kerry was well known. It’s because when her parents couldn’t accept her, the town did. We adopted her. Took her in.” Jeannie held up one of the photographs. “She took this of us years ago. Remember?”
She held it up, then offered it to them.
Tanner took it first. “This is us at the Christmas tree lighting,” he said. “Thanksgiving night, if I remember.” He grinned. “You burnt the pie.”
Jeannie stole it back from him and handed it to Pennilyn, who stared down her nose at it.
“Not the point,” Jeannie said, but offered a meek smile in return.
Mark looked over Pennilyn’s shoulder. “We didn’t know Kerry back then. Or, rather, we didn’t know her like we do today.”
Like we did, Donnie couldn’t help but think.
Jeannie shook her head and she showed them the second photo.
“Tanner took this a few weeks ago.”
“I did? Let me see?”
She showed them. It was a photo of Kerry, looking through her camera. She was taking pictures of the town. The Founders Week celebration, commemorating the days in which Bellriver was forged centuries ago.
“I stole this,” Jeannie admitted. “In all that time that we knew her, we never took a photo together. She took ones of us. Hundreds, I’m sure. Pennilyn, she has that entire album of you scowling topless.”
At Donnie’s look of interest, Pennilyn said, “She was going for Feminist Sheik.”
Old Resa, breathing normally now, scuffed the dirt with her shoe. “Still not happy about that.”
“Why? Because I flashed my tits for someone other than you?”
“I couldn’t give a rats ass who you flash your tits to,” Old Resa said. “I was just annoyed she didn’t ask me.” She waved a hand, indicating herself. “Who wouldn’t want to photograph all this?”
“Jeannie, you got a camera in that coat of yours?” asked Pennilyn.
“Moving on,” Mark said louder than all the rest.
Still, Jeannie couldn’t help but smile—at this, at them. The lives they lived.
Her eyes fell to the photographs as Donnie, taking them from Harriet, offered them back to her.
The lives that were now lacking.
“We don’t have Kerry’s body,” Jeannie said. “I don’t know when we will, or if we will. Who it’ll go to.” She shook her head. “But we have this.” And she raised the photos. “We have her. And I brought you all here because, yes, Kerry Greaves is gone now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still say goodbye.”
Donnie looked around. “I’m not even sure what I would say . . .”
Mark stepped forward. “That’s okay, Don. Jeannie and I were actually thinking it would be better if we didn’t say anything at all. But, think something.”
“Think it?” Pennilyn said. Then, in a whisper to Old Resa that everyone heard, “Couldn’t I have done that at home?”
Mark shook his head, but it was Jeannie who spoke.
“I read somewhere that, when you’re hurting, it’s good to think long and hard about whatever it is that’s giving you grief, and then let it go. So that’s what I want to do. That’s what I want us to do.”
Jeannie motioned to the bridge. “We cross it together. And as we do, we let go of it all. The pain. The agony of what it must have been like to die alone—”
“She wasn’t alone,” Old Resa said. “In the moment her heart stopped, maybe.” She moved forward to rub Jeannie’s arm. “But that young lady was never alone. You assured her or that. By taking her in. Giving her a home. A reason to return to Bellriver. To be a part of our lives.” Old Resa smiled. “I’ll go first, if you don’t mind.”
She was crying. Silently crying.
Jeannie nodded, and the older woman stepped up to where the bridge arched upwards.
Pennilyn was close behind her, followed by Tanner, then Harriet and Donnie. Single file. Each taking a few moments at the very center of the small bridge to say one last goodbye. To think of their happiest memories of the girl the entire town loved.
Mark gave Jeannie’s hand a squeeze, Katherine still on his shoulders—sleeping by the look of it—and he stepped out onto the bridge.
Jeannie went last. And as she stood there, basking in the glorious light that fell down in the gap between the trees, she brought the photo of Kerry to her lips and cried, quietly, until all that pain, all that hurt, the agony built up inside of her, came crashing down.
And she let the photos fly.
One on each side. Of Kerry, who loved this town in the way she took their pictures. Silently, but purely. And the other of them, of the town that loved her back.
Drifting down, down.
Jeannie let go of it all.
It wasn’t easy. But it felt right. Felt good.
Jeannie’s family was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge. When her feet touched dirt once more, Mark put his arm around her and she stiffened, hoping he wouldn’t notice the bulge in the waistband of the back of her pants.
Mark wasn’t the biggest fan of guns.
But Jeannie knew, despite letting the worst of it go, that someone out there—someone no doubt walking the streets of Bellriver at that very moment—had killed Kerry Greaves.
Their friend. Their family.
They could be looking for another target. Someone else to kill.
Jeannie would be ready this time, though. Whatever the consequences.
“I think I could use a stiff drink,” Pennilyn announced. “Anyone else?”
Jeannie was the first to raise her hand.
Chief Hastings stared down at the newspaper plastered to the table beneath her splayed fingers. “It didn’t look like wood. I mean.” She paused. “You felt it. That was stone. It was hard—”
“Fossilized,” Andi murmured to herself.
Mercer looked at her. As did the chief.
“My great-uncle makes some of the statues you see in graveyards around our area back in New Mexico. And I also know that some sculptors like to use this form of material just to say that they could. Wood that’s been petrified. Fossilized. They get it from British Columbia. It’s rare, but it’s not unheard of,” explained Andi.
Mercer held up the newspaper. “And you’re saying these same statues could be fossilized as well?”
Andi blinked. “I think it’s highly unlikely that all of them are. But some. Maybe just one.” She pointed to the photograph. “It’s the same design. The same arch of the wings. The same curve of the beak.” She offered a shrug. “Maybe it’s a common design, but I . . . I feel like this design is specific. The shape of the eyes, the beak . . .”
Chief Hastings nodded.
Mercer looked at the chief. “Should we wait for the report to come back to tell us what the statue really is made out of? Wood or stone.”
She smirked. “I think you’ve already decided what you want to do, Kit.”
And he had.
“The ad says the company is based out of Bellriver. Valley View Road,” he read. “That’s up by Bellriver Heights. In the hills overlooking town. That’s just a few miles from here.”
“Good, we’ll go check her out.” The chief turned to Andi. “Can you get your uncle on the phone when we get back?”
She nodded. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good,” Lizzie Hastings said. “Then hop back over to the station. You can watch the phones while we’re gone. And, while we are out, try doing some research on Sweetwater’s Sweet Carvings. Radio us what you find.”
The chief shot her a reproachful look.
“I mean: yes, chief.”
And they were gone, leaving Andi behind.
Just then, Arlo swung by. “Your bill, my dear.”
Mercer drove to Sweetwater’s, Chief Hastings silent beside him. They rode with the windows down a crack, the way the chief liked. She always warned him about her carsickness, though he never believed her. He knew she just liked the air on her face, the prickles of cold, the numbness of the nearing winter wind, pulling at her cheeks.
In her absence, he hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed this. The quiet of the car, save for the roaring of the wind, tugging at the windows. The groan of the heater, all vents faced at him. He’d missed this silence—a different kind of silence than one that’s caused by another’s absence.
“It wasn’t an accident,” she’d said that fatal night. She’d hardly been lucid. And the doctors had warned Mercer not to trust what she said while she was on her pain meds. But she’d said this before she’d gotten to the hospital, and part of her had to be lucid enough for her to have said it. Thought it, even. And so, it stuck with him.
She didn’t remember it after the fact. And he never brought it up again. He would. Of course, he would. Eventually. But now, her first official day back, was not the time. It would be a while, Mercer knew. He’d only tell her when she was back. Not present, but back. Really back.
“I can almost hear you thinking,” the chief suddenly said, and to Mercer’s surprise, she put up the window. “Kit?”
He looked at her now, and wasn’t at all surprised to find her gripping the seat beneath her. Her knuckles were white with tension.
Gently, Mercer eased back on the gas.
“I’m just thinking about the body,” he lied.
She nodded, tucking some of her wind-mussed hair beck behind her head. Her fingers drummed on her knees, tapping out a pattern. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two . . .
“Kerry Greaves,” she scoffed, shaking her head. “Who’d have thought?”
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Exactly,” he breathed. “Why Kerry?”
The chief watched the trees passing outside in a wild blur of tangled branches and swirls of falling leaves. Trying to keep herself calm.
“Everyone liked Kerry,” Mercer added, still astonished.
“It takes one emotion,” the chief responded. “One instance of powerful feeling. Rather than get over it, move on, this feeling, this emotion, it decayed. Became rotten. That’s what makes a killer, Mercer. Not someone who didn’t even know our victim. But someone who knew her well. Intimately.”
He didn’t know what surprised him more: the fact that she knew so much about something that happened so little in the village of Bellriver, or the fact that she called him ‘Mercer.’ She never did that. Almost never.
“Mercer,” she’d said that night. Mercer. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t. Wasn’t. It wasn’t an accident. It’s not over.”
It’s not over.
He tried to shake the thought from his mind.
It took him a moment to realize she thought he was shaking his head in response to what she said.
“No, I agree. I just don’t know what kind of emotion a girl like that could incite in someone else to get her killed in such a way.”
“All it ever takes is one word to make a killer.”
Mercer didn’t doubt this. He just wished they didn’t have to be having this conversation. Wished that Kerry Greaves had gone and never returned. Like she’d promised.
“I know she was important to you—” Chief Hastings began.
“Once.” He took his eyes off the road to look at her. “But that was a long time ago.” A very long time ago.
So long that Mercer hadn’t even considered it when they’d first come across the body in that pasture.
And that was the end of that.
They pulled up to Sweetwater’s a few minutes later. It was up a steep dirt road, which, living in Bellriver, wasn’t saying much.
Through the trees, Mercer could see the village of Bellriver gathered below.
“Is this their house?” Mercer wondered, pulling into the driveway.
“Look.” The chief nodded towards a small barn beside the house. In front of the closed doors were different sized totem poles, each carefully carved and left to sit like guards posted to deny entry to anyone who approached.
Mercer parked and hopped out of the cruiser.
“Must be a family business.”
The chief squinted. “Doesn’t look like they’re open.”
Mercer, nodding towards the house, said, “You check the house, I’ll check the barn.”
Without a word, the chief made her way up the stoop. He heard her rapping at the screen door. Meanwhile, Mercer drew towards the statues and the barn beyond. It was locked, with no other entrances.
“No one’s here,” came the chief. “It’s a weekday. Shouldn’t their shop be open for business?”
Just as they were getting in the cruiser, as if in answer, Andi’s voice came over the radio.
“What is it, Darcy?”
“Sir,” she said. “I couldn’t get my great-uncle on the phone just yet. But I decided to do a quick sweep of the databases on the computer. And there’s a name here—Jillian Sweetwater. Could this be who we’re looking for?”
Chief Hastings and Kit Mercer shared a glance.
“Andi,” Mercer said. “What was Jillian in for?”
“Uh . . .” Her voice clicked out. Then, a moment later, “DUI. Roughly twenty-seven years ago. Should I send you her picture?”
A short time later, Mercer’s phone buzzed in his pocket. On the screen was a pretty, young, Native American woman. Her features were sharp, eyes dark. But there was a . . . a sort of look in her eyes. Something that said, ‘Any chance I get, I’m running.’
But she hadn’t run, had she?
“Find out what you can about this woman. Anything’ll help.”
Andi signed off and was gone, leaving them to sit there in their silence. Mercer blasted the heat, warming his fingers before the vent, and the chief even aimed one at herself.
“What would a wood carver want with Kerry Greaves?”
She looked at him. “I guess that’s what we’ve got to find out.”
Andi didn’t hesitate. The moment she’d hung up the radio, she printed a picture of the woman and headed across the street. The two old guys from before had left, but a new set had arrived, with a little old woman between them, sitting at the bar. Arlo was with them, too, cleaning the counter top and talking about bears.
Bears. That was another thing she hadn’t stopped to think about when making the move from New Mexico. The wildlife. The unforeseen danger, always there, constantly lurking, an unexpected presence just beyond the tree line.
She didn’t stop to think about it now.
“Hey look, it’s Mr. Thayer,” said one of the men, pronouncing it like “Mr. There.” He nodded to a short, balding man walking by the window.
“Where?” asked the other, glancing around the Depot.
“No, Thayer,” said the first.
“Yes, Thayer, but where?”
“No,” said the other, “I’m telling you, he’s there,” and he nudged his chin out the window.
Andi’d had enough.
Without asking, she lifted the board blocking off the entrance to behind the counter and saddled up beside Arlo, who merely smiled at her and continued cleaning.
“Officer Andi, what can I—?”
“This woman,” she cut him off, slamming down the photograph. “She’d be a bit older these days. Any of you seen her?”
The woman, staring down at the print, laughed to herself. She had a wild head of hair, pure white, like snow, pulled back as though she’d spent the morning trapped in a wind storm. Only, there wasn’t hair towards the front—it receded into a bushel of cloud-like fur. And her eyes were piercing blue—a different blue to Andi’s. The words polar-vortex came to mind when she looked too closely.
Her eyes, though, a bitter brown, stared at Andi like she was watching a speck of dirt at the end of her nose.
“That’s Jillian Sweetwater,” she said.
Andi’s brows rose. “So, you’ve heard of her?”
“Everyone and their brother have heard of Jillian Sweetwater. She’s the only Native around for miles.” Andi didn’t know if that was supposed to be an insult—but the way her words were carried, she didn’t know how else to take it.
Andi clicked her tongue. “I take it she’s not well liked?”
“Not in these parts, no.” The woman took a strong drink from her coffee and set it back down. “Jillian is an animal activist.” The woman, scowling, waved her arm, indicating the entirety of Bellriver. “In a hunter’s playground.”
Andi thought this over, bouncing from one foot to the next. “Would you say she has some enemies?”
Just then, the woman seemed to come to her senses. Her eyebrows waggled above curious eyes. “She’s done something, hasn’t she? Or, more likely,” she said, “has something been done to the bitch?”
“You hunt?” Andi guessed.
“You bet your ass.” She struck out a hand and Andi couldn’t help but stare at it. “Pennilyn Clarke,” said the snide, older woman.
With reluctance, Andi shook her hand.
“It’s a pleasure.”
Was it though? wondered Andi.
“This here is Buddy,” she said, pointing to the man on her left. And then, indicating the younger man on her right, “And this is Tom. But we call him P.J.”
“P.J.?” Andi asked.
“I’m a puddle-jumper pilot, lil miss,” he said. “And it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
She shook his hand, and P.J. dipped his head in something of a bow.
Pennilyn snidely said, “Just about everyone in this town under eighty hunts, for your information.”
At this, Arlo shook his head, and Andi almost smiled.
“Do you know where I might find Miss Sweetwater, Pennilyn?”
“Call me Penny, or call me nothing,” she chided, scowling. “She’s gotta house down Valley View Road. Might be smart to check there.”
“And if she’s not there?”
“She’d probably be at work,” said the woman.
“Doesn’t she work from home?” Andi thought about the carvings.
Would she carve them elsewhere?
“No.” Penny shook her head. “The Sweetwater’s have their own side business selling wood carvings or something. But it doesn’t pay the bills.” Again, she took a long drink, clutching her mug from the bottom rather than the handle. “Who’d have thought they’re not in high demand? Anyway, Jillian’s a guidance counselor at Hilltown Junior.”
At this, Andi actually did smile.
“Hilltown Junior,” Mercer told the chief, hanging up his cellphone. “Andi says Jillian works there during the week.”
“Teacher?” Chief Hastings was digging through his glove compartment, looking for something.
“Guidance counselor.” He glanced her way. “Can I help you with something?”
“Nope. You still dating, Kit?”
Slowly, Mercer shook his head. “Not really the dating type.”
“Tell me you’re not one of those hit it and quit it guys,” she groaned, sitting back in her seat. “I thought your mother raised you right.”
“God,” he hissed. “When did you even start talking like that?”
“Could have said “Fuck it and chuck it,” she grumbled under her breath. “And hey, Mr. high and mighty, don’t act so innocent.”
“Innocent?” He turned onto Main Street, slowly to let a flock of turkeys waddle drunkenly past. “Why even bring this up?”
She’d shut his glove compartment and was now riffling under her seat when, again, she sat back and said, “Because last time I saw you with this, you told me it belonged to the gal you were seeing.”
In her hand was a CD case.
“I always knew Mamma Mia was your style.”
“Give me that!” He grabbed for the case, but she held it away from him, laughing as they sped onwards toward Hill Town—and for the first time, Chief Hastings forgot about her fears. Forgot they were even moving.
Mercer swerved to avoid hitting a suicidal squirrel, and in that mere moment, Chief Hastings had the CD loaded and playing, and the soundtrack began from the begging.
“Here we go again,” he sighed.
“My my,” sang the Chief. “How can you resist it?”