“Come on now,” she says to the scrum of reporters, clearing them with several sweeps of her arms. “Let her through.”
Brian Prince is the last to move. He raps on the truck’s window, begging me for a quote.
“Talk to me, Maggie. Tell me your side of the story.”
I pound the gas pedal and the truck surges forward, leaving Brian flailing in a cloud of dust. I don’t slow until I’m up the hill and in front of Baneberry Hall. It looks more sinister now than it did this time yesterday, even though I know that’s impossible. The only things that have changed are what I now know about the place and the length of broken police tape dangling from the front door.
Chief Alcott pulls into the driveway behind me. She gets out of her Charger, and I hop out of the truck. We stand at a distance, facing each other like movie cowboys before a gunfight, both of us fully aware that we might not be on the same side. It all depends on how guilty I think my father is, something that changes by the minute.
“I was hoping we could talk,” she says. “The folks in Waterbury did a preliminary examination of the remains last night.”
“It’s Petra, isn’t it?”
“Not officially. They still need to check dental records. But the bones belonged to a female in her late teens. So, it’s looking pretty likely that it’s her.”
Even though I’m not surprised, the news leaves me feeling unmoored. I go to the porch and sit on the steps, my damp jeans chafing my thighs. I’d feel more comfortable in a change of clothes, but I’m not quite ready to enter Baneberry Hall.
“Do they know her cause of death?”
“Not definitively,” Chief Alcott says. “Her skull was fractured. That’s the only damage they could positively identify. They can’t conclude that’s what killed her. That’ll be hard to do, considering the condition those bones were in.”
“Why did you think Petra ran away all those years ago?” I say.
“Who says I did?”
“Figures,” she mutters. “The truth is that I did suspect something might have happened to Petra.”
“Why didn’t you do anything about it?”
“I wasn’t in charge, so I didn’t call the shots. That was three chiefs ago. No one else on the force gave two shits about a teenage girl. I did, but I stayed quiet anyway, which is something I’ve regretted every damn day for the past twenty-five years.” Chief Alcott takes a deep breath to collect herself. “But now I do get to call the shots. And I want to know what happened to that poor girl. So, let’s talk suspects. Other than your father, who else do you think could have put that body under your floorboards?”
“I should be asking you that,” I say. “Come to think of it, should we be discussing this at all?”
The chief removes her hat and runs a hand through her short silver hair. “I don’t see any harm in us talking. I’m just trying to cover all the bases. You shouldn’t consider me the enemy, Maggie.”
“You think my father murdered someone.”
“You haven’t given me any reason to think otherwise.”
Had my mother called me back, I might be better equipped for this conversation. But she didn’t, even after I called her again this morning. Now I can only blindly toss theories like darts in a dive bar.
“I know my father looks guilty,” I say. “And, for all I know, he might have done it. But if he did, then it doesn’t make sense why he mentioned Petra so much in his book. If he had some kind of affair with her, like Brian Prince thinks, or he killed her, like probably everyone thinks, it would have made more sense not to mention her at all.”
“Maybe that’s what he was hoping we’d think,” Chief Alcott suggests.
“Or maybe someone else did it.”
The chief jerks her head in the direction of the front door. “There wasn’t a whole lot of people with access to that house.”
“Walt Hibbets,” I say. “He had keys to the place.”
“True,” Chief Alcott says. “But what would his motive have been? Petra lived across the road from him all her life. He would have had plenty of chances to kill her. Not that old Walt was the killing type. But if he was, why wait until then?”
“Maybe he knew Baneberry Hall was empty,” I say, grasping. “And he put the body there to frame my father.”
“Hiding a body isn’t the best way to frame someone. But it’s interesting you mentioned someone from the Hibbets family.” The chief’s tone is loaded, making me squirm in discomfort. My jeans squeak on the steps. “I was surprised to see Dane here yesterday.”
“He’s helping me work on the house,” I say. “Why is that a surprise? He’s a contractor, after all, although he said business was light.”
“Did you ever stop to wonder why?”
I hadn’t. I didn’t give it any thought whatsoever. I needed help, Dane was there, we made a deal.
“What are you getting at?” I ask.
“I’m saying that most folks here aren’t too keen on hiring an ex-con,” the chief says.
My breath catches in my throat. This bit of news isn’t quite as shocking as yesterday’s events, but few things are.