Everything was quiet, and the white-capped trees looked strangely serene. One would have never thought that a child had been stolen in their shadows.
Bess traveled in light, slow footsteps down the length of the riverbank. She knew where Jacob and his friends had normally played—she and Tess had often taken care of them in winters past.
The area she stopped at was a prime place for playing—the river was covered by a thick, opaque, skate-ready sheet of ice, and the riverbank rose upward into a small hill, making it an ideal post for frenzied snowball fights.
Bess stopped in front of the hill and looked up and to the sides. She saw nothing.
The creature saw the girl looking around. Was she waiting for someone? It didn’t want to risk being seen.
It had had good luck at the river with the boy, and had decided to return and search there for more food. It was quiet, and it could slip quickly and easily back into the surrounding forest.
The girl turned her head, and the creature realized that it was the girl it had seen before, the one who had seen it a few nights before. Was she looking for it? Hoping to catch it?
Its hunger was not currently unmanageable, but it decided to go after the girl. If it caught her, it could ensure that nobody else would hear about it. Nobody else would come looking for it.
It studied her as she moved along the edge of the water. She was taller than the boy, but shorter and larger than the other girl it had found. It would be best for it to come up on her quickly as it had the others.
It needed to be careful. The girl’s eyes were wide and searching, and she periodically looked to the trees around it. If she saw it and fled, or cried out for help, it could be discovered.
The creature was careful not to let the light catch it as it moved into the shadows at the base of the hill. Now, it would wait for her to come close.
The girl’s face was pink with cold, and her chest heaved with the effort of picking her way along the bank while breathing in enough of the thin, icy air. She was becoming fatigued, and her pace slowed slightly. All it needed to do was wait. In the cover of shadows, it moved forward.
Bess felt as though she was being watched. It was a ridiculous notion. Whatever had taken Tess and Jacob would most likely not be here at this moment. It seemed to hunt mostly at night. Jacob’s disappearance had been a fluke.
But she still let her eyes move over the tall, dark forest that surrounded her. She couldn’t get the memory of those black eyes out of her head.
Seeing nothing, she dropped her head and looked to the ground. Her time would be better spent looking for answers, not worrying about her own skin.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, so quickly that she was hardly sure if it had really happened, she saw something move.
Her eyes snapped up to focus on the base of the hill, and she chided herself for her unconscious reaction. It had been a branch moving in the wind, nothing more.
But, despite her assurance, her feet moved toward the shadows nearly of their own accord. She needed to see, needed to know that it really had been a branch.
She stepped closer and stumbled over a root partially obscured by rotting leaves. She flung her arms out, catching herself at the last moment.
And then something was in front of her.
In the split second before it moved, she registered several things.
The something was not human.
It crouched low, like an animal, its talons clenched against the soil and ice.
Its skin was brown and thin, as if she could tear it just by raking her hand across it.
And its eyes, the bottomless black eyes that stared at her without expression, were the same ones she had seen—so long ago, how long ago had it been?—at the party.
They were real.
And then the something lunged at her.
She ran, feet moving of their own accord once more. But the hill was too steep, and she knew that she would not have the time or strength to scale it. The other bank was flat, and she could run through it and back in the direction of town.
But she would have to cross the river.
It was narrow in this part of the wood, scarcely more than a creek, and, even when it flooded, its depth was less than twenty feet. She knew, however, that a misstep in this weather would be the end of her. Either she would fall beneath the ice and surrender to the freezing, inescapable grip of the Merrill’s waters or—and this was worse—she would trip, staying on the surface but giving the creature time to catch up to her and silence her cries with the glint of its teeth.
It took her less than a second to decide. She jumped over the root she had stumbled over moments previously and continued forward until she reached the pure sheet of ice that hid the dark water below. She held her breath, sent up a quick, frantic prayer—pleasepleaseplease—and slowed as she moved onto the slick surface.
The creature was not far behind, slipping quickly through the trees, but it stopped short when it saw where she was. Its black, hard eyes bored into hers, and it too moved slowly forward. It stopped at the very edge of the ice, several feet away from where she stood.
It did not take its eyes from her, and she understood that it was waiting to see what would happen. It would be unwise to endanger itself. Perhaps it would not even have to make the effort. Perhaps she would doom herself, and it could slip quietly over to her shivering, gasping form, slicing those claws into her flesh even as she pled for release.
It would not happen. It could not happen. Bess felt a hot certainty in her chest. If she was going to lose, if she was going to be another victim whom Mariner could not and would not save, then it would not be by her own hand.
Her hands trembled as she held her arms out on either side of her. She slid one of her boots forward, gaining mere inches.
The world was silent. Even the wind seemed to be watching, waiting, holding back.
She slid her other boot forward. She had moved approximately one foot forward—quite literally. A wild, gasping laugh escaped her. The creature watched.
She moved her left foot forward again. Her heel caught on a slick spot, and she stepped forward, hard, catching herself again.
She paused. She listened for a crack. She made sure that she could not feel the rush of near-black water seeping into her boot.
And she moved forward again. After repeating the process twice more, she was nearly a third of the way there.
A thought struck her, and she slid herself sideways so that she could keep one eye on the creature. Had it moved forward while she had been turned away? Its claws rested lightly on the ice while the rest of its body lay safely on the ground. Its dark eyes gazed at her, still waiting.
She slid further along, still sideways, eyes still on the creature. It did move forward then, slightly, almost imperceptibly. She supposed that it had not expected her to make it this far along.
Its hands, large and reptilian, lay flat on the ice.
It was perhaps this shifted focus that led her, a few feet further along, to become reckless. She was nearly in the middle now, at the point where the water was at its deepest and the ice was at its thinnest. As she focused on those long, flat hands, she pushed her right foot forward a little too quickly. It hit another slick, smooth patch, and she brought it down heavily on the white-paper surface.
She heard a cracking sound.
The creature heard it too, and tensed, ready to slip forward.
She closed her eyes for just a moment, willing the noise to be a product of her addled nerves. But, even before she opened them, she could feel the fundamental shift of the ice underneath her weight.
More cracking noises. Louder ones.
She no longer had to rely only on her sense of sound. Fine little lines were splintering outward from the edge of her boot, and more cracks were appearing to her left and right. If she stayed like this for long, she would fall.
She needed to run.
She pitched forward, unseeing, and she felt the first icy fingers of the water push into the worn gaps between the sole and fabric of her boot. She kept running, hearing the hard breaking noises around her, and whipped her head around, just once, to see if the creature was still on the bank.
A gasp tore from her throat. It had left the ground, moving nearly soundlessly onto the surface to join her. It was still positioned low, and close to the bank, and thus was away from any immediately danger. It continued to watch her.
Bess knew what it was doing. It would wait until she was caught, either below the surface of the ice or near to it, and then it would slip quietly toward her, navigating the spots of safety, having let her mark the areas of danger.
As she struggled helplessly, hopelessly, it would take hold of her in a terrible parody of rescue, lifting her to its gaping mouth, its jagged teeth, and the last thing she would see in her life would be those dark, swallowing eyes.
The thought of it jolted her into action, and she ran faster. She was almost there now. She just had to keep going….
And then her boot punched through the ice, and all at once she felt the water, so cold that it nearly burned, invade her skin like thousands of knives.
She gasped and fell forward onto her knees. The creature, the monster, took its cue to begin moving in earnest. It was moving with caution rather than speed, but she knew that it would be upon her in only a minute or two. Perhaps less.
She struggled, her leg splayed behind her, her hands grasping uselessly at anything she could use to pull herself fully out of the water. Was this how Jacob had felt? Had this ice, the whispering leaves and watching trees, been the last thing he’d seen before his death? Or was he still out there somewhere, desperate and cold, hoping that somebody would save him?
The thought of Jacob brought a new, fearful strength to her arms. The monster had nearly closed the gap between them.
She pulled herself forward again. She had gained a couple of inches. Just a little bit more, and she would have the leverage to pull her leg free.
There was a low scraping noise behind her.
She looked, knowing what would be there and hoping what would not.
The monster was there, reaching forward, its eyes looking—in her haze of desperation—almost triumphant. It did not lunge forward, and Bess knew that it did not want to risk having the ice give way underneath them both.
Instead, it kept reaching, and its claws closed around her flailing, half-submerged thigh.
She screamed, finally, praying again—PLEASEPLEASEGODPLEASE—and flung herself forward with her last reserves of frantic energy.
In the next second, she felt her leg leave the water. She kicked out wildly, her foot connecting with something she did not look back to see, and she was rewarded with a low, full scream.
She propelled herself forward blindly, her feet finding the earth of the bank as the ice broke behind her. Once on land, she chanced a look back.
The monster was still on the ice, and a thick, dark liquid spilled from one of its eyes. She felt an absurd burst of pride that turned to fear as it looked in her direction. She knew that it didn’t dare chase her and risk falling through the destroyed surface, but she also knew that, now, it knew of her. There would be another encounter, a next time.
And she knew, as she raced through the trees and listened for inhuman screams at every step, that next time she would almost certainly not be so lucky.
Bess did not have a good explanation for why she came home disheveled, flushed, and with one leg nearly frozen from the water and the unforgiving wind. She decided that her best course of action would be to tell the truth.
“I went looking for Tess,” she responded simply when her mother greeted her at the door with a look of horror.
“I thought you were going to the library,” her mother said, and she let out an incredulous laugh. It was the kind of laugh that people make when they don’t want to know or confront the full truth of a situation. “What happened? Is this a trick of some kind? What happened to your leg?”
She knelt down and inspected Bess’s soaked leg and boots.
“What happened here? Did you go looking for Tess in the river?” She let out that little laugh again.
“Sort of. I went to the river to see if I could find anything that would tell me about Jacob’s disappearance, and I ended up out on the ice.”
Her mother’s scared, unknowing expression hardened into anger and fear.
“You ended up out on the ice? Were you trying to get yourself killed?”
“No, I was being chased!” The words, unbelievable and indignant, were out of her before she could stop herself. Her mother’s eyes flashed.
“Chased? By whom?”
Bess gazed at her then. She knew that she could not reveal the full truth of what had happened at the river. Her mother would never believe her, and it would destroy whatever semblance of a family life that they had left. Her parents could not handle having one daughter disappear and the other lose her mind.
“I don’t know.” She cast her eyes down, hoping that her voice would sound suitably frightened and clueless. “It was a man I didn’t know, and I didn’t get a look at his face.”
Her mother pulled her to her chest, her anger forgotten. “Well, what exactly happened?”
Bess quickly pieced together an edited version of events in her head. “I went down there to look for clues, and I noticed this man lurking around on the edge of the bank. When he saw me, he started running toward me.”
Her mother, surprisingly, bought both the story and its lack of detail. But she was not without questions.
“Oh, Bess, I’m sorry. Did he say anything? Did he try to get you to leave with him?”
“No. He just started running toward me, shouting about how he was ‘going to help me’ and ‘take care of me’ and that I needed to stop. I got scared and started running away, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to run up the hill. So I went out across the ice. One of my legs went under, but I was able to pull it out and run away.”
Her mother’s eyes were full of sympathy. Bess was still surprised that she had bought such a thin, suspect story, but she supposed that such tales became far more believable when one had already lost a child to the unknown.
“I’m glad you’re okay.” Her face hardened, and Bess knew what was coming.
“But you cannot go looking for Tess. You could get yourself killed. Do you understand me?”
Bess cast her eyes down in an expression of remorse. “After what happened to my leg, I don’t think I’ll do it again.” Her soft voice seemed to appease her mother.
Good. We’re all having a hard time right now, but we need to be sensible.” She squeezed Bess lightly, and her tone became brisk. “Now, we need to tell Officer Marsh about this.” She let go of her daughter and started toward the phone. “If that man is still out there, Marsh needs to know about it.” She began dialing numbers. “What if he tries to enter someone’s home?”
A monster coming and knocking on our door? Doubtful.
Bess knew that she needed to do damage control. Officer Marsh was the last person she wanted to tell her story to.
“I don’t know, Mom. I mean, I was really scared, but what if he was mentally ill? Maybe he didn’t even know what he was doing.”
“All the more reason for Peter to know about it. If that man is a danger to others, they need to make sure that he’s not out wandering around where someone could get hurt.” She pressed the receiver to her ear. “Are you sure you don’t know who it was? Maybe he was someone we’ve met before. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he would target both you and Tess.”
Bess attempted to answer her, but Sarah held a finger to her lips.
“Yes, Peter? It’s Sarah Andrews. I was calling to tell you that my daughter just had a very frightening encounter with a man down at the river.” Pause. “No, she’s okay, but she nearly drowned. Apparently she had to run across the ice on the water to get away from him, and one of her legs broke through.” She sounded reproachful, as if Officer Marsh was responsible for Sarah’s wet, aching leg.
Bess tried again to speak, but Sarah held up a hand.
“Yes, please. Are you able to come by in an hour? My husband will be home soon, and I think this is something we should all discuss together. Okay. Okay. Thank you. Goodbye.”
She hung up the phone and gave Bess a sympathetic smile.
“Officer Marsh is coming by in a little while to hear more about what happened. You can tell him what you told me, and anything else you think he may need to know.”
“I don’t…I don’t know if I can.” A sense of dread was working its way into Bess’s stomach. Officer Marsh would know a fake story when he heard one, and what would happen if he called her out in front of her parents? Worse, what would happen if he believed her, and some innocent man was arrested because of her lie?
Her mother hugged her again, oblivious. “I know that it’s still fresh in your mind, and I know that talking to the police can be intimidating. Believe me, I know—especially now.”
She laughed shakily, and Bess was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of love and pity.
“But you need to, Bess. Think of how many people you could help. What if he was the same person who targeted Tess?”
And Bess could not bear to refuse her again.
“Okay, Mom. You’re right. I’ll talk to him.” The words fell from her mouth like bricks.
Her mother squeezed her one last time. “Thank you for being brave.” She glanced down at Bess’s leg. “Now go take a long, hot shower, and tell me if your leg starts to feel strange.”
Bess pulled a smile across her lips. “I will. And a shower sounds great—I’ll come back down before Officer Marsh gets here.”
Her mother smiled back, and Bess dragged herself to her room.
While she was showering, she couldn’t stop thinking about the monster at the river. She kept expecting to see its clawed hand reach around the curtain for her again, or to turn and see its black eyes staring at her. As she turned off the water and stepped onto the floor, her bottle of shampoo fell off of the rim and into the basin. She flinched.
When she looked down, she could see the evidence of the monster’s claw. Her pant leg was still torn, the fabric hanging in jagged ribbons and clumps against her skin. But it looked a little bit ridiculous, now, like a costume. The ache in her leg, meanwhile, had begun to recede. These things made the whole thing—the whole encounter, fight, whatever it was—feel a bit more distant, a little bit more like a simple bad dream.
She dressed, quickly, in jeans and a nondescript sweater. She combed her hair, but thought better of it and mussed it slightly. She wanted to look a little bit scared, a little bit roughed up—maybe then Officer Marsh would believe her.
She wiped the fog from the mirror and examined her face. The shower had returned some of the color to her cheeks, but she was still suitably pale. The dark circles under her eyes lent her an air of frightened confusion.
All things considered, she looked convincing. Not too polished.
She returned downstairs to find that her father was already home. She gave him the same version of the story she had given her mother, and he reassured her that the man would soon be brought to justice. She smiled and tried to look grateful.
After a few minutes of her practicing her strained, false gratitude, Officer Marsh appeared at the door. He looked almost less polished than she did. She let him in, and he studied her as he entered the house.
“I understand that you’ve had quite a scare,” he said. It came out gruff, disbelieving.
Bess nodded. “It really was very scary.” She cringed inwardly. She sounded stage-y and practiced.
Marsh nodded, giving no indication that he had heard the affectation in her voice.
“I’m sure. I’m just here to find out exactly what happened.” His tone was reassuring, but his eyes held little warmth. “Sometimes, when we’re very scared, we can see things that are…completely false.”
He moved past her into the living room, and Bess closed the door behind him.
“Peter, I’m glad you could come.” Will shook Marsh’s hand, and Bess hated the familiarity with which her father addressed the other man.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Marsh responded. “I completely understand how much you want your daughter to stay safe.” He sat and smiled at the three of them.
“So, why don’t we just get right down to it? Bess, can you tell me what happened when you went to the river?”
“Well, I went down there to search for clues pertaining to Jacob’s disappearance.” Bess stopped. She was sounding stage-y again. “And, as I was walking along the bank, I saw a man.”
“What was the man doing?” asked Marsh. He looked unimpressed.
“He was just…walking around.”
Marsh raised an eyebrow.
“Why would anyone be walking down around the river in this weather?” he asked. “I understand why you were down there, of course, but it seems like an odd place to look for victims.”
“It does,” Bess allowed, “but maybe he knew that he had had good luck there before.”
Marsh’s eyes flashed, and Bess knew that she had scored a point in the nameless game they were playing.
“And then what happened?”
“He saw me. He began running toward me—”
“Did you speak to him at all?”
“I’m just trying to understand. This man sees you. He does not speak to you. You do not speak to him. He just looks at you and, with no buildup or warning whatsoever, begins running toward you?”
Sarah and Will looked from Marsh to their daughter and back, their faces frozen in expressions of polite puzzlement. Bess tightened her jaw.
“Yes. He only began yelling at me after he started running toward me.”
“And what exactly did he yell at you?” Marsh’s voice was gruff again.
“He yelled that he was going to get me, and that he was going to take care of me. That sort of thing.”
“I see. And you didn’t recognize him? He wasn’t somebody who knew you, or somebody who would have known Tess before her disappearance?”
“No. He was a stranger to me, and I assume that he was a stranger to Tess. I had never seen him before in my life.”
“Okay. So this man, whom you don’t know, sees you and begins running after you for no reason, yelling threatening messages about what he’s going to do to you. Then what happens?” Marsh’s tone had not changed.
Bess was careful not to change her expression or position. “I realized that I wouldn’t be able to get away from him if I tried to run up the hill. It was too steep for me to climb up quickly.”
“Yes, I suppose you wouldn’t have been able to climb it quickly enough.” His eyes flicked over her body.
“No,” she said flatly, avoiding shifting her weight. He was trying to upset her, trying to get her to slip, and she wouldn’t let him. “My only choice was to go across the ice.”
“And he didn’t follow you?”
Bess thought back to the way the monster had behaved. “No. I think he realized that we would both go under if he and I were both running and putting pressure on the same spots, so he stood on the other edge and kept yelling at me. I think he was hoping that I would trip and fall, and then he could come out and try to grab me.”
“But you did trip and fall. He didn’t try to walk across and attack you?”
“One of my legs broke through the ice while I was running. I was down, but only for a moment. And I think my fall scared him a little bit—like he realized that the ice really wasn’t strong enough, especially after I broke part of it. I was able to make it the rest of the way across, and he didn’t follow me any further.”
“All right. Is that all?” Officer Marsh still seemed less than convinced by her story, but her parents remained steadfast.
“Peter, don’t you think that somebody should go check it out?” Will’s voice had a pleading edge to it, and Bess thought vaguely that she had never seen her father sound so vulnerable.
Marsh sighed. To Bess’s parents, it probably sounded pitying and kind, but Bess could hear the frustration in it.
“Yes, that would probably be a good idea. Bess, why don’t you ride down to the river with me and show me where everything happened?”
For a moment, Bess felt the same fear she had experienced while running away from the creature at the river. What were Marsh’s intentions? Why was he trying to get her alone? She certainly didn’t believe that he would try to physically harm her, but she knew that there were other ways to intimidate.
Her mother, oblivious, nodded vigorously.
“That’s a good idea. Officer Marsh will be able to keep you safe in case that man shows up again.”
Will agreed. “It might still seem a little bit frightening, but I think you should go down there as soon as possible. You might be able to find a shoeprint or something that could help identify him.”
Bess had a flashback to gathering Tess’s fake “evidence.”
“Yeah, Dad. Maybe.”
Marsh got up, stretched, and gestured outside to his waiting car.
“Well, Bess, shall we go ahead and go?”
“Sounds good,” Bess offered, trying to keep a friendly smile on her face. She turned to her parents.
“If I’m not back before dark, assume that the man found me again and call the police—or, I guess, other members of the police.” It was a dark joke, but it was also a warning. Don’t trust Marsh completely.
The officer ushered her outside, making a show of helping her into the cabin. Once she was seated, he slammed the door behind her. Bess held her breath as he walked around to the driver’s seat and slid in beside her. He looked at her.
“You going to put on your seatbelt? Your parents would kill me if I didn’t bring you back in one piece. The roads can be pretty dangerous this time of year.” As if to prove his point, he eased slowly out onto the icy concrete and kept his speed at a crawl. Bess had the curious feeling that she was suffocating.
As they headed in the direction of the bridge, Marsh said nothing and barely looked at her. Bess stared out of the window and tried to keep herself calm.
It was only when they were almost to the river that Marsh spoke.
“Look, Bess. I feel badly for your family. I really do. It can’t be easy, mourning the loss of someone like Tess.”
Bess didn’t respond. He didn’t know Tess. He had barely been able to remember the two of them until the night he’d begun talking to them at the party.
Marsh tightened his hands on the steering wheel, and sighed heavily.
“But this…this silly story is just keeping me from doing my job. I know you think that there’s some kind of killer stalking people around Mariner, but I can assure you that that is not the case. It’s just a series of bizarre animal attacks. We live in a heavily wooded area, after all. It isn’t so hard to believe that bears and wolves, especially during a hard winter, would come out of the woodwork and do some pretty desperate things in order to obtain food.”
His hands tightened again on the steering wheel. His knuckles were white.
“I feel sympathy for you, but I’m beginning to lose my patience. If we arrive, and there’s no sign of anything having occurred on that ice, I’m going to have to tell your parents that I think you were lying.”
Bess was silent.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Bess said quietly. They were parking along the side of the street now, and they would have to walk a little ways through the forest in order to reach the riverbank.
She climbed out of her seat, planted her feet squarely on the ground, and began to walk toward the wall of trees. She wondered why they had not yet been razed in order to make room for a proper parking lot.
Truth be told, however, she did quite like the effect. Whenever she went to the river, it was like the trees were a barrier between her real world and a lush, fantastical one. As she began to pass through, she thought of the monster and shivered. If only the fantastic could stay on one side of the barrier.
Marsh walked a few steps ahead of her, his pace impatient. As they neared the point where they could clearly see the river’s surface, he turned back to look at her.
“Now, look. There’s nothing there, is there?”
Bess pointed wordlessly, and Marsh turned.
The spot where her leg had broken through just hours before was still there. Dark water bobbed up through the jagged hole, and splintery cracks extended outward from its perimeter. Other cracks were visible in the area surrounding it, and large chunks of ice had broken off following her desperate run. They floated quietly in the water and nearly completed the picture of destruction.
But the final pieces of the puzzle, and what Bess was really pointing to, were the deep claw marks that marred the ice’s surface.
“Look at that.” She spoke up for the first time since leaving Marsh’s car.
He gaped and tentatively stepped forward to get a closer look. He reached out with one finger, as if he were going to trace the marks with it, and shifted his gaze to the shadowed hill on the other side. Bess waited.
He looked at her then, and Bess knew that he had two choices. He could accept the fact—or at least the possibility—that she had been telling him at least some form of the truth. He could change his outlook on the world and begin to understand that perhaps there was more behind the curtain than he had ever thought before. He could look at her clenched fists and set jaw and believe her.
He continued to look at her, long and hard, and Bess knew deep within her mind that he was going to take the second option.
It was easier.
“These marks were obviously made by an animal before you got here,” he said. “Besides, you said that you had run into a man. I don’t know how any man could make these claw marks unless he had very long fingernails. It still fits with our animal theory.”
He gazed at the jagged hole in the ice. Bess could see that he was warming to his theme. She understood. It was easier that way.
“You staged this.” His voice was flat, and it left no room for rebuttals or arguments. “You broke the ice and put your foot through it to make it look like you had been in danger. But I see no footprints aside from your own.”
Bess started to protest and point again to the claw marks. But the creature’s feet and hands had been so wide and heavy that they had left no neat, defined outlines in the snow. There were only large, messy prints here and there, as if someone had taken his or her shoe and rubbed large holes in the snow. She was pretty sure that Officer Marsh would have a human suspect for that, too.
The man surveyed the site again and sighed deeply.
“Now, I’m not going to tell your parents about this. I think they’ve had enough to deal with over the past few days, and I don’t want to trouble them with tales of your acting out.”
Liar, Bess thought spitefully, childishly. You’re not going to tell them because you know they wouldn’t believe you. You’re not going to tell anyone because nobody else in this town would believe that I smashed my own leg through a sheet of ice to try to get attention or to “prove” that there is a human killer out there.
Then she thought, It’s not even human.
Marsh looked toward his car and began his way back toward it.
“Who else have you told about this?” His tone was too casual, almost friendly.
“Just you and my parents,” Bess mumbled.
“Okay. I would suggest that you not get anyone else involved in this. I don’t want anyone behaving any more hysterically than they already are.”
“Okay.” Bess found herself mumbling again. She hated him then. He was unwilling or unable to grasp the seriousness of what was going on in Mariner, and he thought the better course of action was to play along with his chosen story even as it slipped from the truth at a frightening pace.
They got back into the car, and Bess sighed involuntarily.
That had been it. He had spent less than ten minutes there. He had stood there, taken in everything that had no explanation, and concluded that she must have been making it up. The status quo was too fragile to accept the possibility of her truth.
They drove back to the Andrews home in silence, and Bess opened her door even before Marsh had fully stopped the car.
“Thank you,” she called back with as much sarcasm and venom as she could muster. Marsh turned off the car and opened his own door.
“I’m not saying goodbye quite yet. I have a few things to say to your parents.”
“I thought we weren’t going to tell anyone about this. Isn’t that what you said? I thought my story was that I went out to the river with you, and we aren’t going to tell anyone about what happened there.” She couldn’t keep the bitter edge from slipping back into her voice.
Marsh’s face twitched, but he didn’t say anything back. Instead, he raised his fist and knocked heavily on the Andrews’ front door.
Sarah answered almost immediately. “That was a short trip. What did you two find?” Her eyes searched their faces hungrily, and Bess knew that she would not have told her mother what had really happened even if she had had Officer Marsh on her side. She was too fragile now, too likely to break at the slightest blow.
“Not much,” said Marsh. He kept his voice even and professional. “There’s a lot of broken ice down there, but nothing that could tell us the identity of the man who threatened your daughter.” And then he said the words that Bess could now almost recite along with him: “We’ll let you know if we receive any further information.”
Will appeared at the door behind Sarah. “Anything?”
Marsh shook his head and sighed. “Not yet. As I said before, we’ll let you know if we find out anything else.” He turned to walk down the sidewalk, but paused in the middle.
“Oh, and I would suggest that Bess stay inside the house for a few days. I think all of this stress could have a negative impact on her mental and physical health, and we also wouldn’t want that man attempting to find her again.”
Bess shot him a dark look, but her parents were nodding in agreement.
“That’s probably for the best, Peter,” Sarah said. “We’ll keep her inside until we’re certain that that man is either caught or away from Mariner.”
Marsh nodded and smiled. “That’s a good idea. I’ve got to get back to work, but please don’t hesitate to call me if anything else happens.”
“We will,” Will responded, and Bess felt nearly ill at the amount of gratitude in her father’s voice. “Thank you for checking it out for us.”
“It’s no problem at all. Take care.” Marsh gave the three of them a friendly wave, finished his turn, and continued on down the walk.
Bess’s parents immediately began to talk about how glad they were to have Officer Marsh there, and what a good man he was, and how they had a good feeling about him finding Tess sooner rather than later.
But Bess wasn’t listening. It had become clear to her, now more than ever, that she wouldn’t be able to rely on Marsh for help. Nor her parents. Nor Tess.
She had no more safety blankets. If she wanted to find Tess, she was going to have to do it herself.
And do it fast.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in