The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Eight

EIGHT

Piper Sheridan hated her job. Hated everything about it. She’d tried for months to come up with a word that better described how she felt, but here and now, Piper was almost certain one didn’t exist. She hated her job. Hated it. That’s the reason she was leaving. Not because it was too stressful or because it didn’t pay enough, which was true. And it wasn’t because there wasn’t a day where she didn’t come home covered in mystery stains and smelling of glue. It was simply because she hated what she did, and that was final.

That’s exactly what she told her boss when she handed in her resignation slip ten minutes earlier. Now she had a box of her things—probably one-sixtieth of the crap still in her classroom—and she was heading down the front walk, ignoring the kids hollering from the playground, shouting out her name.

When she looked up, she noticed a police car parked at the end of the walk. She paused in her tracks, watching as the doors opened and two cops got out, hands on their belts.

“Chicken shit,” she muttered under her breath.

The cops—who Piper recognized as Bellriver officers, Chief Hastings and her Officer Mercer—sauntered forward.

“Is this really necessary?” She threw down her box, which tipped, spilling out its contents onto the front walk. A role of tape rolled forward, and Officer Mercer stopped it with his foot. “I quit and they think they have to call the police to get me out? I quit. I chose this. They think I’m hysterical. Always.” She threw up her hands and rolled her eyes. “God! Because I’m a woman they think I—”

The Chief brought up a hand. “We’re not here for you, ma’am.”

Piper froze.

“You’re not?”

Officer Mercer shook his head. “No, ma’am.” He pulled out a wad of paper from his pocket and, stepping over all the junk that now littered the ground, unfolded it. “Know this woman?”

She tipped forward on her toes. “Of course. That’s Jillian Sweetwater.” Piper motioned back over her shoulder. “You’ll find her in the Main Office.”

Slowly, Piper sunk into a crouch. “Then I guess this whole display looks somewhat—”

“Hysterical?” Despite himself, Mercer couldn’t help but grin. He stooped to help her gather her things.

Behind him, Chief Hastings said, “I’ll meet you inside.”

A nod from him sent her on her way.

Piper, her box of crap in hand, rose back to her feet with the Officer’s help. “So, if you’re not here for me, what’s up with Jillian Sweetwater?” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Is she in trouble? I mean, she must be if Bellriver PD is in Hilltown.”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that, ma’am.”

“Piper,” she said, and then awkwardly tried to hold out her hand while still clutching her box.

Mercer shook the three fingers offered to him.

She was short. Straight, dark hair fell around her head, speckled here and there with spots of white—despite the youthfulness of her face. She couldn’t have been any older than thirty, Mercer suspected. But she looked tired. Like the light was draining out of her, moment by moment. Drop by drop. Aging her from the inside out.

Gray-blue eyes searched his.

“So, you quit?” He nodded to her things, avoiding her gaze.

“Resigned,” she said, nodding. Like there was much of a difference.

He glanced towards the playground. “Kids got to you?”

Piper almost deflated. “There’s a myriad of reasons, honestly.” Her eyes crept to the fence for only a moment. “I hate it. All of it.”

“You a teacher?”

She shook her head. “God no. I was an aide. Helped where I could.” Piper exhaled through her nose. “God, if I’d gone through all that schooling to be a teacher, I don’t think I’d ever quit. Then again, had I gone through that schooling, I’d probably have realized how much I hate it early on.”

She heaved her box up higher to keep from dropping it. “Anyway, I should probably be getting home.”

“Can I help you to your car?”

Piper’s mouth worked. “Uh, certainly.”

She handed him the box, and with an amusing frown, he took it.

“Can I ask you a question?”

She looked up at him. “Shoot.”

“Jillian. Miss Sweetwater,” he corrected. “Do you know if she was in contact with a girl by the name of Kerry Greaves?”

“Kerry?” Piper paused. “The photographer over in Bellriver?”

“You know her?”

“Everyone knows her.”

“Everyone from Bellriver,” said Officer Mercer.

Piper nodded. “My point exactly.”

“You’re not from Hilltown?”

She shook her head. “Bellriver. Born and raised.”

“Really?”

“Not many job opportunities in town, though.” She glanced back over her shoulder, squinting at the school. “You take what you can get. That’s what my daddy always used to tell me.” Piper grinned to herself, then batted her lashes. “It was my mamma, though, who told me to follow my heart.”

Mercer looked at her. “And where’s your heart telling you to go?”

“Right now? Subway. Though, I might be mistaking my heart for my stomach.” She stared up at him, into that gruff looking face. “What’s this about, anyway? If you don’t mind my asking? Kerry Greaves is a good girl. You sure she’s not in trouble?”

Was, Mercer thought.

He opened his mouth to speak, to tell her. But stopped.

She would have to find out just like everyone else, by reading it in this week’s paper.

“No,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Piper raised her head, stiffening. “You think Sweetwater killed her?”

Mercer stopped.

“My daddy was a cop,” she said. “There gets to be a point when you know when there’s a body and when there isn’t.” She squinted. “She is dead, isn’t she?”

Starting forward once more, he gave a brief nod.

“And Sweetwater?”

“A suspect.”

“You think she did it?”

They’d arrived at her car. “I think our only piece of evidence so far points to her, yes. But now. As of now, I have no idea.” He shifted his weight to one side, and after she opened her trunk, Mercer slid the box into the small compartment.

“Say,” he said, “do you know the significance of an owl?”

Piper, crossing her arms, shrugged her shoulders. “I know they’re important to keeping the food chain balanced. They eat the critters that eat the crops that farmers round here plant. Is that the answer you’re looking for?”

Mercer grinned. “Not exactly.”

“Then what?”

“More of as a symbol.”

“An owl as a symbol?”

A nod.

“Wisdom,” she said, shutting her trunk. “They represent wisdom. But that’s about all I know.”

Mercer thanked her. “I should be getting inside.”

“To Jillian Sweetwater.”

“And the Chief,” he said.

“Think she can do without you for a while?”

“Why?” he asked. “What do you have in mind?”

“Lunch?”

Mercer froze. For an instant, he closed his eyes and was standing beside Juliann. Everything was okay again. And more than anything, he wanted to say yes. Wanted to go out to lunch. But when he opened his eyes, it wasn’t his wife standing before him. Wasn’t his ex-wife.

So he frowned and politely said, “It’s still morning.”

Piper grinned. “Never stopped anyone from eating before.” She nodded, slowly. “Maybe next time, then?”

Maybe, Mercer thought.

He gave her a brief nod and she was on her way.

Mercer stared after her, but he wasn’t really seeing her. Just Juliann, as he remembered the way things used to be.

“Mrs. Sweetwater?”

“Ms., actually,” the woman before Lizzie Hastings said, spinning around in her chair. Seeing who it was, Jillian froze, her eyes going wide. “Is there a problem?”

“I’m afraid so,” Hastings said. “Got a moment?”

“Hardly. I’m afraid I’ve got a meeting with a student’s parents in about”—she checked her watch—“six minutes. Can you be quick?”

Chief Hastings sunk into the chair across the desk from Jillian Sweetwater. “I can certainly try.”

Sweetwater waved a hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You own a woodcarving company?”

A small, careless nod. “Looking to buy?”

“Looking for answers,” came a voice in the doorway.

Mercer stepped into the room and sunk into the chair beside the chief.

“What took you so long?”

“Got caught up,” he said, not looking at her. But at the woman across the desk.

Jillian Sweetwater, Mercer wasn’t surprised to find, no longer resembled the woman in the photograph Andi had sent him. She was medium height, small eyes cool and beady. She wore a checkered shirt that was tucked into jeans, an odd style, he supposed, for a guidance counselor. But it was her hair that struck Mercer.

Her hair.

Pure silver, all the way down the length of her back.

Smooth, and long, and solid looking. Dense.

It was beautiful, somehow. In the way that only odd things could be.

He’d thought about leaving the chief to interview Jillian Sweetwater on her own, but he wanted to be there. It wasn’t everyday they got a murder in Bellriver, and this needed his attention more than anything right now. More than Piper Sheridan.

“Raincheck?” she’d asked, getting into her car. She started it up and rolled down the window. “I can’t promise anywhere fancy. What with no job and all,” she said, laughing, though Mercer could tell there was a bit of sadness underneath it all.

He’d offered a look that hadn’t meant to seem pitying, but to Piper, it clearly came across that way. “I’m afraid it’s not in the cards,” he said, and tapped the roof of her car.

“Maybe not today, but someday.”

Mercer couldn’t help but grin at this. “Someday,” he’d nodded in agreement.

In the small office, he cleared his throat.

“I just had some business that needed tending to,” he told them, glancing sidelong at the chief.

“Answers?” She glanced uncomprehendingly between them. “What kind of answers?”

Mercer couldn’t help but stare.

She was small, almost decrepit looking. Clearly Native American. Mean in the eyes. But stunning. Not in the traditional sense. She had an anger to her, he couldn’t help but look past; it was written in the deep lines and grooves of her features. In the hollows beneath her narrowed gaze.

“Like who killed Kerry Greaves?” came the chief.

Jillian looked taken aback. “The photographer? She’s dead?” The woman motioned to the newspaper on her desk. “I don’t recall reading about that. What was she, twenty-six, twenty-seven?”

“Something like that,” said the chief.

Sweetwater hung her head. “Crying shame. But what leads you here to me?”

“Answers,” Mercer repeated.

Beside him, Chief Hastings echoed, “Answers.”

Jillian looked taken aback. “Me? What makes you think I know anything?”

“Yours business—”

“My husband’s business,” she corrected Mercer. And then, correcting herself, said, “Ex-husband.”

“We found a statue beside the body. A small one. About four inches tall. Easily could have been a carving.” Chief Hastings grabbed for the newspaper and flipped to the ads, tapping her finger over the one for Sweetwater’s Sweet Carvings. “Something that looks like these.”

Jillian Sweetwater suddenly said, “Look, we don’t make anything that small. Even if we did, we haven’t made anything new in weeks. My husband moved out, and I hardly have time to keep myself going.” She shook her head. “If you want to talk to my ex, go do that.” She rose to her feet, as if to make a point of saying she was done talking.

“I’d very much like to, actually,” said the chief, who flipped shut the notebook Mercer hadn’t even seen her takeout. “What’s his name?”

“Sully to those who know him. Sullivan Harris to those who don’t.”

“And how can we find this . . . Sully?”

“Hell should I know?”

Mercer stared. “He didn’t just move out. You kicked him out?”

“Did he sleep around?” she asked.

“I’m assuming yes, judging by your tone.” Mercer nodded.

“Then yes. Yes, I did. That lying cheat of a—” Sweetwater held her tongue, breathing deeply through her nose.

“Thank you,” Hastings said. “That’ll be all for now, ma’am. We’ll keep in touch.”

“Don’t bother,” Jillian Sweetwater snapped. “I’m done talking.”

Andi was tired. Tired of searching, tired of dealing dispatch, tired of sitting beside a phone that never rang. She finally shut her laptop when she heard Mercer and the chief on the stairs, shoving it away from her. A few hours of diligence had brought her no closer to finding out what that statue meant. If it meant anything at all.

“Did you meet with Jillian Sweetwater?”

Mercer hung his hat and coat on the hook. “She didn’t give us much to go off. Says she didn’t make the statue we found.”

“You believe her?”

“Not for a second,” said the chief. She nodded to Andi’s laptop. “Find anything?”

“Nothing useful, unfortunately.”

A nod. “Mind getting us some lunch?”

Andi shot to her feet. “If it means leaving the office, not at all.”

Chief Hastings grinned. “Dispatch was never my favorite, either.”

“Want the usual?”

Mercer nodded.

“And you?”

The chief shook her head. “Whatever he’s having.”

Andi nodded, but before she left, she stopped in the doorway. “If you don’t mind me asking . . .”

The chief raised her head. “Shoot.”

“Jillian Sweetwater’s Native American, correct?”

A nod. “Cheyanne, I think.”

“So, what’s she doing all the way out here? Not that I meant that to sound . . . well, you know. But I checked the latest census report while you were out and she’s the only Cheyanne for hundreds of miles. In all of New England, it seems. They’ve got a reservation out in Wyoming—where Jillian is originally from. So why come here? Why on her own?”

Hastings sniffed the air. “Sweetwater’s husband. He’s not Cheyanne?”

“White,” Andi said. “His name’s—”

“Sullivan Harris,” said Mercer. “We know.”

“As for what she’s doing out here,” the chief said, “what does it matter? Everyone’s path leads somewhere.”

Andi, still somewhat incredulous, offered a small nod.

“Why?”

“I find it odd, is all,” she said, but shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

A moment passed and she was gone, off to get their lunch.

“You disappeared there for a while.”

Mercer grinned. “I was having a conversation.”

“We’re investigating a murder, Kit.”

“Now, now, don’t get jealous.” He sunk into his chair and it rolled. “I was merely helping Piper Sheridan to her car.”

“Helping her to her car. What’s that a euphemism for?”

Mercer rolled his eyes. “Don’t make this a thing.”

“You like this girl, Kit?”

“I don’t date,” was his answer.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“I don’t even know her.”

“That’s not what I asked—”

Suddenly, a loud screech cut through the air, and both Officer Mercer and Chief Hastings threw themselves to the windows overlooking the road below.

Andi was lost in her own thoughts when she stepped out into the road.

What was Jillian Sweetwater really doing here?

It’s true, what the chief said. Everyone had their own path. Andi’s led from New Mexico to New Hampshire, and there was no telling where it might lead her next.

But, then again, Andi wasn’t a suspect in a murder investigation.

Was love—marriage, even—really the only reason she was there?

Or was there another reason?

Why did she leave the Reservation?

Is Sweetwater Kerry’s dealer? No, couldn’t be—unless Kerry’s dealer wasn’t the same person as the man she was hooking up with.

So . . . did that mean Sweetwater killed Kerry Greaves?

What would be the motive?

If she is the dealer, did Kerry owe her money? Did Kerry talk?

Or—

The first thing she heard was the song, pouring out into the open air. A radio, blasting, the song so loud she couldn’t hear the words, only the beat, the tune of it.

Andi was struck from the side. It came at her like a bolt of iron.

She’d gotten vertigo several times as a child. Once, on a roller-coaster that scooped her up and swung her up and twirled her world upside down. This wasn’t unlike that.

She was heaved off her feet in a single instant and thrust up the car’s windshield, where she rolled and tumbled off to the side, cracking her head and her shoulder on the left-side mirror as, free of any and all volition, Andi was hurled to the pavement below.

She landed on her back with the world upside down, revolving all around her. The sky, blue-gray, swirled like water circulating around a drain, clouds and all.

The car stopped. Waited. And as Andi watched, immobilized, she waited for the tale lights to flash—for the car to speed into reverse. Finish the job.

Only, after another moment, the car sped off with a loud squeal.

She lied there, her eyes shut with relief, and after a moment, tried to rise. Andi rolled onto her stomach and forced her arms beneath her, using her knees to get her off the ground—but a mere moment passed before a set of hands gripped her beneath the arms, embracing her.

Mercer had her by the midriff, strong arms clutching her to him, even as she pressed to escape, to rise. To show the world she was okay.

To see who had hit her. And chase them down.

But she couldn’t get up, and he was saying, “Stay down,” over and over again.

Yelling it.

“There’s an ambulance on the way. Just stay down, Darcy. Stay down.”

Andi, aching, tilted her head.

Arlo, clearly having seen from the window, had run out into the street. He was standing there now, running to meet Chief Hastings as she stepped out into the road.

“Andi, everything’s going to be alright—”

“I’m okay,” she said, and tried again to stand, despite Mercer holding her back. “I don’t need a hospital. See, look, I can do it.”

But she couldn’t. She knew she couldn’t. And Mercer didn’t let her try.

He raised his head and looked to the chief.

“How much you to bet the driver of that car was Jillian Sweetwater?”

In a quiet voice, Andi said, “There are some things you simply don’t bet over.”

Mercer looked at her and looked lost between relief and annoyance.

“Donnie’s got a single security camera set up,” Arlo said, indicating a camera on the wall of the Depot that Andi couldn’t see. “I’ll get you the footage. Maybe we can see who was driving.”

“Or, more likely, a plate number,” said the chief.

Arlo nodded and ran back in. A few spectators had exited the diner to watch the scene unfold, but Andi payed them no mind. Instead, she simply sunk into Mercer’s embrace and let him hold her, even if it was the last thing in the entire world that she wanted.

To show him how weak she felt. How vulnerable she was.

And she hated how much she enjoyed it. Being held by him.

“The ambulance is on its way,” he said again. “Just hold on.”

So, she did. She held on.

And somewhere at the back of her head, Andi heard a song—the very same that’d been blasting from the car’s radio. Only, she couldn’t place it. A harsh, grating tune.

So, she hummed it now. And Andi held onto that, too.

Christian Mercer held her tight, clutching her to him. And, in that single instant—he knew, of course, the absurdity of it—he couldn’t help but wonder, despite it all, whether she could sense his fear. Whether she could feel his heart beating beneath his coat. And know that it wasn’t out of fear that they’d nearly just lost a member of their team.

But more.

A reason deeper than that.

A reason, Mercer found, that was only now dawning on him.

He clenched his eyes shut, breathing deeply, and he saw it played out on repeat inside his mind.

That car, Andi lifted into the air—and he saw her as she came back down, cracking against the road.

He tried to blink it away, tried to push it from his head.

And he managed for a moment, staring down at her, as she looked up at him, her eyes searching, clinging to him.

He looked away after some time—and yet, like a phantom, or as though he’d stared directly into a light, Mercer saw her eyes long after, bearing into him, bright and endless, the way only he imagined the sea could be. But warm, too, even when they were cold. Even when they were angry. Hurt. In pain. They were still warm, still bright. Still searching, as though looking beyond the surface of anything and everything—to what really was.

Despite himself, Mercer shivered.

And Anderson Darcy held on tighter.

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