“The truth is that he made it all up,” I say. “Everyone knows that.”
“I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” he says.
Because Brian Prince shows no sign of leaving anytime soon, I take a seat on the porch steps. When Brian sits next to me, I’m too tired to shoo him away. Not to mention a tad curious about what he thinks is the real reason we abandoned Baneberry Hall.
“Did you investigate his claims?” I ask.
“Not back then,” Brian admits. “I didn’t have access to this house, for one thing. Plus there was other news to deal with.”
I roll my eyes. “It must not have been too important. The Gazette put my father’s bullshit story on the front page.”
Which, I wanted to add, was the reason other news outlets paid so much attention to it. If Brian’s article had been buried inside the paper, no one would have even noticed it. But by splashing it across the front page, along with a particularly sinister photo of Baneberry Hall, the Gazette had provided validation for my father’s lies.
“If our deadline had been a day later, your family’s story probably wouldn’t have even made the paper. But I didn’t hear about the Ditmer girl’s disappearance until the morning after that issue had gone to press.”
My body goes rigid at the mention of Petra. “I thought she ran away.”
“I see you’ve already talked to Chief Alcott,” Brian says, flashing me an unctuous smile. “That’s the police’s official line, by the way. That Petra Ditmer ran away. I guess it sounds better than saying a sixteen-year-old girl vanished under mysterious circumstances and they were too inept to find out what really happened to her.”
“What do you think happened?”
“That’s one of the things I wanted to ask your father.”
An uneasy feeling floods my gut. Although I’m unsure where Brian is going with this, his tone of voice already suggests I’m not going to like it.
“Why ask him?” I say. “My father didn’t make Petra run away—”
“Vanish,” Brian interjects.
“Vanish. Disappear. Whatever.” I rise, heading back to the truck, no longer wanting to hear what else Brian has to say. “My father wasn’t involved in any of that.”
“I thought that, too,” Brian says, still on the porch steps, still smiling, still acting like this is just a friendly visit when it’s clearly not. “It wasn’t until later—long after your father’s book came out—that I began to suspect they could be related.”
“For starters, Petra Ditmer was last seen on July 15—the same night you and your family left this place. That’s a bit too strange to be a coincidence, don’t you think?”
The news hits me hard. There’s a dizzying moment in which I think I’m going to faint. It comes out of nowhere, forcing me to lean against the truck to keep from falling.
Petra Ditmer vanished the same night we fled Baneberry Hall.
Brian is right—that does feel like more than just a coincidence. But I don’t know what else it could be. Petra certainly didn’t run away with my family. That’s something I would have remembered. Besides, Chief Alcott was inside our hotel room at the Two Pines that night. Surely she would have noticed if a sixteen-year-old girl had also been there.
“I think you’re overreaching,” I say.
“Am I? I’ve read your father’s book many times. In it, he had lots to say about Petra Ditmer. Considering their age difference, they seemed quite close.”
He puts a lascivious spin on the word that makes my blood boil. Yes, Petra was mentioned frequently in the Book, often at key moments. That can’t be denied, especially when I now have the photos to prove it. But that doesn’t mean she and my father were, to use Brian’s euphemism, close.
I knew my father better than he did. Ewan Holt was a lot of things. A liar. A charmer. But he wasn’t a creep or a womanizer. I know that as sure as I know that my mother, had she been cheated on, would have taken my father for every cent he was worth. Since she didn’t, I have to believe we left Baneberry Hall for other reasons.
“Most of what’s in my father’s book is verifiably false. You can’t trust a single thing he wrote. Including how much time he spent with Petra Ditmer. My father wasn’t a stupid man, Mr. Prince. He certainly wouldn’t have written so much about Petra—in a book that hundreds of thousands of people have read—if he was the one who caused her disappearance.”
“Now you’re the one who’s overreaching. I never said he caused her disappearance. What I’m suggesting is that they’re related. Your family fled Baneberry Hall at almost the exact same time Petra Ditmer vanished without a trace. That’s not normal, Maggie. Not here in Bartleby.” Brian stands and makes a show of wiping his pants, as if merely sitting on Baneberry Hall’s porch steps has somehow dirtied him. “Something strange happened the night your family left, and I fully intend to find out what it was. Now, you can help me or hinder me—”
“I’m sure as hell not going to help you,” I say.
Even though Brian Prince and I share the same goal, it’s clear we’re each looking for different results.
“Although that’s not the answer I wanted to hear, I respect it nonetheless,” Brian says. “But just so you know, I will uncover the truth about that night.”