“What did he do?”
“Aggravated assault,” the chief says. “This was in Burlington. About eight years back. There was a bar fight. Dane got overzealous and beat the other guy until he was unconscious. Cut him up real bad, to boot. His victim spent a month in the hospital, and Dane spent a year in prison.”
My mind seizes on an image of Dane in a dive bar, slamming his fist repeatedly into a stranger’s dazed, bloody face. I want to think he isn’t capable of such violence, but I’m unsure of everything, at least when it comes to the men in my life.
Chief Alcott senses this and says, “I wouldn’t fret over it, if I were you.” She stands, but not before giving my knee a friendly pat. “You have bigger things to worry about.”
She puts her hat back on, returns to her cruiser, and drives away, leaving me alone on the steps to consider three things. One, that Dane—the man I came this close to sleeping with last night—has a violent streak. Two, that I never did come up with a good reason as to why Chief Alcott shouldn’t suspect my father. And three, that it’s possible she brought up the former to prevent me from doing the latter.
This prompts one last thought—that despite her assurances to the contrary, maybe Chief Tess Alcott has her own agenda.
* * *
I don’t enter the house until thirty minutes after Chief Alcott departs. Part of that time is spent talking to an understandably pissed-off Allie.
“Why didn’t you tell me a dead girl was found inside Baneberry Hall?” she says as soon as I answer the phone.
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Well, I am,” she says. “Especially because I had to see it on Twitter. ‘Body found in House of Horrors mansion.’ That’s what the headline said. And for a second, I thought it was you.”
My heart sinks, for multiple reasons. I hate the fact that Allie, even for a moment, thought something bad had happened to me. Then there’s the matter of Baneberry Hall once again being national news. Because if Allie saw it, lots of people have as well.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have told you.”
“Damn right, you should have.”
“But everything is crazy right now. I found the body of that poor girl, and the police think my father did it, and someone broke into the house.”
“There was an intruder?” Allie says, unable to conceal her alarm. “When?”
“Two nights ago. They didn’t do anything. Just roamed through the house a little.”
“That sounds like something,” Allie says.
“I’m not in any danger.”
“Yet.” Allie pauses to take a calming breath I can hear through the phone. “Maggie, I get that you need answers. I really do. But this isn’t worth it.”
“It will be,” I say. “Something happened in that house the night we left. And I’ve spent most of my life wondering what it was. I can’t leave now. I have to see this through.”
Allie says she understands, even though it’s clear she doesn’t. I don’t expect her to. Most people faced with such a fucked-up situation would be content to go home, let the police handle it, and wait for answers. But cut-and-dried answers about how Petra died will tell me only half the story.
I need context.
I need details.
I need truth.
If my father killed Petra, I want to know about it, mostly because then I’ll know how to feel about him.
I came here hoping to forgive my father.
I won’t be able to forgive a murderer.
Which is why I also can’t let go of the idea that he’s innocent. I am my father’s daughter. We chose different paths and we had our share of disagreements, but I had more in common with him than I do with my mother. He and I were far more alike than we were different. If he’s a killer, what does that make me?
After ending the call with Allie, it takes me ten more minutes before I get the courage to enter Baneberry Hall. On my way in, I yank off the remnant of police tape, which flutters away like a windblown leaf. I pause in the vestibule, tentative. A replay of my arrival. The only difference is that now Baneberry Hall actually feels haunted.
I tread quietly deeper into the house. Out of respect to Petra, I suppose. Or maybe a subconscious fear that her spirit still lingers. In the Indigo Room, the area rug’s been rolled against the wall. The police took the floorboards that used to lie under it as evidence. Now there’s a hole in the floor roughly the same size and shape as a child’s coffin.
I peer through it to the kitchen below, which has been cleared of all ceiling debris. That’s likely also evidence now, swept into cardboard boxes and carried out of the house.
I go to the parlor next. Sitting on the hulking secretary desk is the photo of my family in its gold frame. I turn it around and face the image of us together and happy and completely oblivious about what was to come. My handsome, charming father. My smiling mother. Gap-toothed me. All of them strangers to me now.
I spend a moment gazing wistfully at the picture.
Then I slam it against the desk.
I keep slamming until the glass is broken into a hundred pieces, the metal is bent, and the image of my family is creased beyond recognition.