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Tick, tick, tick.

Forty minutes had passed since Chief Parker dragged me into the police station though to the rest of the officers, it looked like I was there of my own free will. He grabbed my phone from my jacket pocket before leaving me alone in the small interrogation room: four blank concrete walls with a metal table, three uncomfortable chairs that were plucked from Hell itself, a two way mirror, and a table lamp that shined brightly on my face.
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A camera was perched high in the left corner of the room and the sweltering heat led me to imagine that it was able to follow my every movement. I only knew how long I had been sitting in the room because of the clock high above the door, ticking ominously. Each second seemed to take longer than the previous one and I was slowly losing my mind.

It was forty minutes of tense silence, leaving me to my own thoughts. Elena was sprawled on the floor, with Belmont pinning one arm behind her back. He was the only reason that she had not jumped Chief Parker in the police car, with the intent of scratching out his eyes. Belmont refused to release his grip until she promised to not attack the moment the shifty police chief entered the interrogation room.

Her responses—“Mrmph”—were muffled by the carpet but knowing Elena and her tendency to hold a grudge, she would likely never forgive him.

Just as the second hand on the clock passed over the twelve, Chief Parker and Garren entered the room, looking like complete opposites as the three of us made eye contact. Garren managed a weak smile but his fingers drumming against the back of the clipboard like some kind of Morse code revealed his underlying anxiety. Sitting across from me, Chief Parker lowered the lamp, allowing me to see for the first time since I was taken into the room.

“We have a lot to discuss, Tessa. Officer Garren is here to assist me. He’ll be writing down your responses so we can review it all later,” he explained as Garren walked over to the third chair in the corner, briefly glancing at the two arguing ghosts.

“Where are my parents?”

“On their way. It’s just a few questions, nothing more. You made the call to the station about what happened to Connor Mitchell, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I was heading over to Will’s house to check on Katie. She’s been really upset since the accident and some kids have been bullying her. I wanted to make sure she was okay and that’s when I heard weird noises inside the house. It sounded like a fight.”

“And then you found him at the bottom of the stairs. How did that happen?”

“I guess he was pushed by that guy I saw in his office. Where—”

“You’re certain that he was pushed?”

The further we went into this interrogation, the sooner I realized that it was all a sham. Chief Parker was asking increasingly obscure questions, such as the exact time I called into the police station and if Mr. Mitchell’s injuries matched the injuries of someone who was pushed down a set of stairs. Garren had been shaking his head so much, as a warning to not say something I would later regret, that he now resembled a bobblehead doll.

Having been through plenty of these interrogations, Belmont reminded me to keep my answers short. As the clock struck nine, an hour since I was brought into the station, my parents were nowhere to be found and I was now sure that Chief Parker never contacted either of them. Elena, finally freed from one of Belmont’s wrestling moves, subtly retrieved my phone from Chief Parker’s pocket and sent a message to my mother.

“Where is he? The guy who attacked me. Are you questioning him too?” I asked as Garren wrote down my answer about Mr. Mitchell’s injuries.

Chief Parker shut the folder that contained statements from the surrounding neighbors and immediate observations of the scene inside the house. He brushed off my question, muttering that the stranger, who he referred to as Jackson, was the police’s problem and irrelevant to the conversation.

“He almost shot me. I could’ve been dead if I didn’t fight back. He’s the one who pushed Connor.”

“How are you so sure of that?” He whipped his heard around at the sound of a loud crash. “Garren, what’s wrong with you?”

Garren had one hand in the air, stopping Elena from striking Chief Parker with the unplugged table lamp on the floor. He awkwardly explained that he kicked the plug while stretching his limbs, his eyes quickly diverting to his black boots to avoid the police chief’s stern glare. The moment Chief Parker turned back towards me, Garren lowered Elena’s arm and rolled the table lamp under his chair.

“You weren’t there. You don’t know that Jackson had anything to do with the accident.”

“Accid—you’re seriously calling this an accident?” I asked, bewildered.

Belmont pinched my leg, hissing “Byrne, shut up,” under his breath.

“He was there to get something in Connor’s office. Connor told me that himself when I found him. I know this Jackson guy’s not exactly a model citizen but he wouldn’t just randomly walk into a person’s house and attack them. He’s not even here, is he? If you questioned him before me, his statement would be in that folder too but it’s not. I bet you sneaked him through the back door so the neighbors and Angela Starr didn’t see him. All to help you pass this off as a little accident, right?”

“We haven’t deemed it as anything yet, Tessa. Maybe Jackson did have something to do with Mitchell’s fall down the stairs, maybe not. We won’t know until we get a better look or until we hear from Mitchell himself. It’s possible he was a distraction for an accomplice.”

“Oh like who, me? That’s what you pretty much implied when you chucked me into the back of a police car. Officer Garren, you’re supposed to writing all this down, right? I don’t see you writing,”

Garren was frozen with his pen pressed against the paper. He stared at me as if I was breathing fire and for a split second, I thought my rage could make that a possibility.

“Instead of threatening to pin this all on me, let’s talk about how you took twenty minutes to get to Connor’s house when it’s only five from the station. I could talk to Angela Starr about it later over some lattes. I bet she’d have a nice spin on it…how the cops in this town don’t give a damn unless you’re throwing money at them. A man was near death and you were all just sitting on your asses like nothing was wrong.”

“Watch that tone of yours. You shouldn’t make nasty accusations like that,” he replied, the vein in his temple throbbing.

“Those aren’t nasty accusations. If you want to get nasty, I can bring up how you called Fin Belmont’s death an accident too and didn’t even bother with checking the crime scene or conducting any interviews. If you did, you would’ve questioned every single person who was at that party or at least waited a week before tearing down the tape. Who paid you to do that? Was it the same person who’s paying you now to let an attempted murderer walk free and who made you force your son to give that silly statement to trash Will?”

The entire room was deadly silent as Chief Parker and I stared each other down, a fire blazing in our eyes. Garren opened his mouth to defuse the tension but even he was unsure of how to handle the situation.

“S—sir, I think—”

“Quiet, Garren," snapped Chief Parker, his chilling tone barely concealing his anger. "Who knew she had a mouth on her? What’s got you so talkative now, huh? Is it the little makeover my son gave you? Or is it just a trait you got from your mother? It must be something that gets triggered when you turn seventeen because she was like you, a little bitch who never knew when to shut up and do what she’s told.”

My nails were digging so deeply into my hands that they drew blood. At that moment, I wanted to smack the arrogant police chief, not caring if it sent me straight to prison.

“Don’t…ever…talk about my mother like that.”

“I’ll talk about her all I like. Maybe we should take a little trip up to Erinyes and we’ll get you your own little padded room. It’s only a matter of time before—”

He clutched his throat, beginning to choke. Garren stood up from his chair, no longer restraining a persistent Elena, as he coughed up blood onto the table.

Belmont pinched my leg again. “Byrne, I think you’re doing this. Stop it.”

Calming myself down, which proved to be difficult when I wanted to set him on fire for insulting my mother, I watched Chief Parker’s choking cease within seconds. He wiped away the blood with his sleeve. Garren, Belmont, and Elena were too busy looking at me in fear but something else caught my attention. Chief Parker was not the least bit concerned by his random choking fit and I caught a brief satisfied smirk flashing across his face. He assured Garren that it was nothing more than a side effect of his new kidney medication.

“Honestly, it’s nothing to trouble yourself over. I’ll be—”

“You know.” My voice was dangerously quiet but just loud enough for both officers to hear. “She was right. You know.”

“Tessa, I think the heat is getting to you a little. Why don’t we go check if your parents have arrived yet and they can take you home? I think you’ve answered enough questions. dDn’t you agree, sir?”

Ignoring Garren’s feeble attempt at avoiding another argument, I kept my eyes on Chief Parker’s tense face. He looked like a child who got caught stealing from the cookie jar.

“You know what I am, don’t you? You’re working for them. That’s why you took so long to get to Connor’s house. You knew it was a trap for me.”

“Garren’s right. The heat’s making you a little crazy. You’re not making any sense. Let’s—”

“Stop lying. I’m not your dimwitted son or his friends that think Mountain Dew is an actual mountain. I don’t know when you found out but you knew it when Fin Belmont was killed and when Will and I got in that car accident. I know they live in Belmont Falls. Tell me who it is or I’ll do something worse than making you choke.”

Chief Parker grinned. “You’ve got quite the imagination, kiddo. Must be all that stress from senior year, I bet.”

“I get it. You don’t want to talk because you’re scared. You must think they have a way of watching your every move.” Seeing him squirm, I could not help but laugh. “Sorry, but it’s just so funny. You called my mother a bitch but really, I think it fits you better. You’re the little bitch. Your head must be shoved pretty far up their ass if you’re willing to let an entire town think you’re an incompetent piece of trash.”

What happened in the next five seconds was one giant blur. Chief Parker, possibly exhibiting secret powers of his own, had moved across the room in the blink of an eye and slammed me against the wall with enough force to make the clock shake, his hand wrapped around my throat. Garren pulled at the burly police chief’s sausage fingers. His pleas were falling on deaf ears, Chief Parker only concerned with popping off my head.

As Belmont stopped Elena from smacking him in the back with a chair, the door burst open, followed by two angry voices blending together. A short young man not much older than Garren, with the body of a stick and a long, pointed nose, was desperately trying to keep my parents from entering the room.

“C—Chief Parker, I’m so sorry. I told Mr. and Mrs. Byrne to wait outside but—” He shrank under my mother’s vicious gaze. “T—they were…I tried to…”

He was at a loss for words when he saw Chief Parker fighting off Garren with one hand while squeezing my throat with the other. My father wasted no time, punching him across the face. The blow caused Chief Parker to stumble away from the wall and Garren checked for any bruising on my throat.

“Devlin, how did—I see you got my message.”

My mother was the only thing standing between my father and Chief Parker, who was one step away from receiving a black eye. She calmly whispered in my father's ear, her fingers curled around his arm.

“We didn’t get a message from you or anyone at the station. We had to hear it from one of the neighbors, who saw Tessa getting in the back of your car. Do all of your interrogations usually involve strangling an innocent child?” my father asked, pure venom in his voice.

“You should teach your little girl better manners.”

“Ironic, coming from the man whose son only avoided arrest for lacking any around a girl because his father is in charge of the police department.”

I was clueless about what my father meant but Elena and Belmont, both looking surprised, seemed to have some idea. Chief Parker’s lip curled and he smoothed the front of his shirt that had gotten crinkled during the scuffle.

“I’ll um walk them out, Danny. Questioning’s over,” Garren told the short officer, who had not spoken a word since entering the interrogation room.

As Garren steered me towards the door, my mother sauntered over to Chief Parker. He towered over her petite frame, being nearly 6’7” with bulging muscles under his uniform, but her face showed no signs of fear.

“I will only say this once so listen to me very carefully, Caleb Parker. If you ever lay a hand on my daughter again, you won’t have to worry about my husband or Declan, who will surely hear of this matter and won’t be the least bit pleased that you harmed a teenage girl. No, the only person you’ll have to fear is me. I don’t care about your friends in high places or that some people in this town think you’re such an inspiration. I won’t tolerate anyone hurting the people I love.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “That’s a familiar little speech. It didn’t scare me twenty three years ago. What makes you think it’ll scare me now? You should put a muzzle on that girl of yours before—”

My mother silenced him with a brutal slap across the face. He reached up to his cheek, his fingers brushing over the scratch left by her wedding ring.

“Oliver, you were supposed to be protecting her!”

The car ride home had been awkward enough, with my mother squeezing me, Oliver, who both my parents admitted to knowing as my guardian, Elena, and Belmont into the backseat of the car. Most of the time in the car, for me, was spent on Elena’s lap. When we finally arrived at the house, my parents, mostly my mother, unleashed all of their pent up frustrations.

My brother was lucky to be at a friend’s house for a sleepover, not having to listen as my parents traded back and forth in lecturing the four of us. In the span of just ten minutes, they covered a variety of topics, from me checking on Mr. Mitchell before the police and nearly getting killed by a stranger to mouthing off to Chief Parker in the interrogation room.

I stopped Garren from defending himself, knowing it was better to wait until my parents were finished talking. He faced the brunt of my mother’s anger for not knowing that I was with Mr. Mitchell until the police arrived at the house.

“Kala, I’m sorry. I know I should’ve been watching her but I had to drive Chace Parker back to his house after—I was wrong”

“After what? What was Chace doing in the house, Tessa?” said my father, going into overprotective mode at the mention of a boy’s name.

I weighed out my options of what answer would make him least angry. He crossed his arms when I muttered softly, “We were making out.”

“You what?!”

“Yeah, we were…really going at it. I just couldn’t help myself. My tongue was pretty much down his throat and if Oliver didn’t show up, I’m like 75% sure we would’ve had sex on this couch. I’m not the girl you knew before you went off to Greece, Daddy. I think it’s those sex ed classes. They made me very curious and—Mom, are you going to stop me yet? You know I’m lying.”

“Yes, I do.” My father heaved a sigh of relief. “Devlin, honestly, you can’t keep expecting that she won’t so much as kiss someone before she’s eighty. Now, I want the truth from one of you. What was Chace doing in the house?”

When I admitted why Garren had to drive Parker home, part of me wished that I had continued with my cover story. My parents were equally displeased, having told me to abandon my plan to uncover the truth behind Belmont’s murder. It was even worse, according to my mother, that I was abusing Garren’s own abilities. Memory extraction and manipulation were only meant to be used in desperate circumstances.

“We just had our talk today. Do you not remember what I said?”

“I remember, Dad. This isn’t about me wanting to be a shark now.”

My mother looked at him, strangely. He scratched the back of his ear and whispered that this conversation was about me, not his questionable inspirational lectures.

“What happened to him is part of something bigger and nana agrees with me.”

“When could you possibly visit your grandmother? What does she have to do with this?”

“I visited her when I told you that I was meeting with Mr. Hilton about the loan and then she kind of appeared to me as a freaky spirit thingy outside Will’s house. She didn’t really explain how but it was weird. The nurse told me that she’s tried to escape a few times because she wanted to give us a message. She said we’re in danger and before you think that’s just her being dramatic…I haven’t been completely honest about what’s going on.”

My lack of a filter around authority figures was the least of my parents’ worries as I recalled everything that occurred since the night of the party, my mother almost having a heart attack when she learned about the attack at the memorial. The only thing that all of them were unaware of was Chief Parker’s odd reaction to his choking fit in the interrogation room.

Hearing that there was another possible reaper in Belmont Falls shocked my mother, who had only ever seen one other reaper pass through the town when I was a little girl. Garren refused to believe that a reaper was behind Belmont’s death and the other incidents.

“Their guardian would’ve taken them to the council if the situation was that severe.”

“Do you get a new guardian if the one you have dies?”

“Usually, yes but if it happens when the reaper is well into adulthood, then the council sees them as fit to handle themselves. We’d know if a guardian was killed. We…feel it, just as you feel a person’s death.”

“Then whoever this reaper is, maybe they have their guardian kept hostage or manipulated them into working together. It’s not impossible. These creatures don’t always have a reason for possessing people, beyond just wanting to cause a little trouble, but right now, they’re listening to this master who is telling them to hurt innocent people. Maybe one of the creatures possessed whoever killed him that night or the person is working with the reaper.”

“And you think one of the possible suspects is someone in his own family? Devlin, tell her that’s insane,” said my mother, having not removed her arm from my shoulders since I spoke about the memorial.

He ran his hand through his dark hair. “I want to but she makes a convincing argument. Who else would’ve hired Jackson to steal those papers? Someone took out life insurance for Fin and unless someone in this town is a very good actor, it has to be a family member. Maybe it’s not connected at all but it’s certainly worth looking into, don’t you agree?”

At the moment, the living room was split into three separate camps: my mother and Garren denying the possibility of another reaper and wanting me to move on from playing amateur detective, my father being mildly intrigued and at least willing to believe that another Belmont played a role, and Elena, Belmont, and me now more determined than ever to find the truth.

My word, this time, was not enough to convince my parents that I was going to continue on with a normal life, not one where I risked getting mauled to death by shadow monsters. I handed over all the evidence I had gathered to my father, including the ring that I discovered on the underside of the bridge.

Another week had passed, though being cooped up in my house all day made it feel like months. The day after my interrogation at the police station, Parker visited me again, apologizing a dozen times for his father’s behavior. My own father watched him like a lion eyeing its prey, ensuring that we were never alone for more than ten seconds and casually mentioning his days on the high school wrestling team and how he learned how to kill someone with his thumb on one of his expeditions. The only upside to being trapped in my house for days was that it gave me time to work on my piece for the art exhibition.

Early Monday morning, I got dressed very quietly for school and sneaked out of the house. Garren was leaning against his police car, his arms folded over his chest.

“Going somewhere? It’s a little too early to head over to the school.”

“The cemetery. We go there every morning to see my family. Is that illegal?” asked Elena.

“Not at all. I’ll drive you then I can drop Tessa off at school. I wouldn’t want her getting in any trouble.”

On the way to the cemetery, I responded to his questions with nothing more than a “yes”, “no”, or “I don’t know”. Noticing the several cups of coffee and the half empty bag of sour cream and onion chips in the passenger seat, I wondered if he had spent the night sitting outside my house. Elena sat in front of her family’s tombstones, telling them how she finally learned how to cook without burning herself (though she conveniently left out burning Belmont’s arm with a splash of water from the pot).

“I remember when the accident happened. It was on the news for almost two weeks…all those interviews with her friends and her other family members that came all the way here to pay their respects. I went to the funeral with her. She wasn’t happy that Angela Starr was harassing her friends for interviews. Isn’t that funny?”

“I don’t see the humor in exploiting a person’s death for some gossip,” said Garren, listening to Elena’s one-sided conversation.

“Not that. I mean, Starr literally stalked her friends for days to get any interesting information, something to make a good story. Look at how she got to Will’s house so quickly and tried to get a statement from Connor while he was being rolled into the ambulance. It’s funny that she never did that after Belmont died.” I slipped a subtle wink to an intrigued Belmont, who was playing with his lighter. “She wouldn’t care if it was murder or an accident. I never saw her hounding his friends for some juicy gossip to turn into her latest article.”

“Tessa.”

“Just an observation, that’s all.”

“You swore to me and your parents that this obsession with Fin’s death was over. Don’t you dare think of meeting with Angie to get dirt on—”

His face was soon redder than a tomato as he realized what he called her. He raised his voice in an attempt to drown out our laughter, insisting that we misheard him. Elena returned to the police car to the sight of Belmont making kissy faces while I mimicked Garren’s voice.

“Officer Ken has a thing for Angela Starr,” I teased.

“K—oh, like the doll? Very mature, Tessa. I’ve seen better behaved monkeys at the zoo,” he said, fumbling with the back door. “I don’t have feelings for—we went to school together and for a time, she had a crush on me. I’m sure she still does but it never…we were never together. Get in the car. I know what you three are planning and it’s not going to work. You are not using me to get any information Angela has on Fin’s case.”

We looked at each other then back at Garren, amazed. “That’s genius, man. We didn’t even think of that,” said Belmont, stuffing his lighter back in his jeans pocket.

In the blink of an eye, Garren’s face turned from bright red to chalk white. He shook his head, seeing the plan form between the three of us like a psychic connection.

“W—what? I—no, you were—I didn’t say…ignore what I just said.”

“We were just going to use you to find out what Chief Parker’s hiding but this is so much better. She has to know something about that night. We can meet her after school. Call her and tell her you want to meet for coffee.”

“Absolutely not. Tessa, you promised—”

“I promised not to look into Belmont’s death myself. You’re doing it for me. I bet you’ve got your friend Angie’s number. You can either call her or I’ll sneak into the police station later and risk Chief Parker trying to tear off my head. Do you want that on your hands, guardian?”

“Fine. I’ll leave her a message,” he said, bearing a look of defeated resignation. “I doubt she knows anything. If she had any information on the Belmonts, she would find a way to get it out there. She can’t stand keeping secrets to herself.”

After a very interesting call, where Angela Starr’s high-pitched squeal could be heard through the phone, he drove us to the school, occasionally throwing me an exasperated glare in the rearview mirror. We planned for him to pick us up after my last class, to join him on his ‘date’ at the Blue Moon café. I was halfway through the front doors when Amy tackled me in a hug.

Behind her, Parker and her friends were waiting, most of them looking relieved to see me back at school. Mr. Hilton stood out among them, his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. Parker glanced outside anxiously, as if expecting my father to be joining me in classes for the day.

“Tessa, we were like so worried. We tried to visit you at the hospital but Claire’s mom wouldn’t let us all leave at once. Did you like the magazines?”

“Yeah, thanks. I liked that one article about bird prints being the new chic for the winter.”

“So true. Right after I read it, I found this dress at a cute shop in New Orleans,” she said, showing off her dark, short-sleeved, knee-length dress with a white dove print.

Mr. Hilton asked for a moment alone when the bell rang for homeroom. Hilton went to say goodbye to her father before joining her friends but he simply waved her off, his eyes on me. I mentally prepared myself for the verbal lashing I would receive when we were in the same room.

“I’m glad to see you’re all better. Not in any pain from that mess in the police station, are you?” he asked, concerned.

“You know about that?”

“Oh yes, your mother was quite upset. I’ve already spoken to Chief Parker about keeping his temper under control. Stress is no reason to harm a child. If he harms you again, tell me and that man will lose his badge faster than he can say Belmont Falls.”

“That’s uh really nice of you, sir, but I doubt I’ll be seeing much of him. I was only at the station to tell him what happened with Connor Mitchell.”

“Yes, I heard about that. This town’s going topsy turvey lately. What with happened to Fin and now Connor…good thing you were there to call the police.”

He fixed the cuffs on his shirt. I briefly caught a glimpse of his left wrist and kicked Belmont’s leg to get his attention away from a freshman girl bending over to pick up her books.

“Your mother told me how they’re framing it as an accident. An accident, I tell you. How ridiculous. Tessa?”

My eyes had not left his wrist, where moments ago I had seen the tattoo from Parker’s memory. I moved my hand behind my back, holding Belmont’s shirt in a firm grip while Elena pinned his arms to his side. He fought against the both of us, which made it look as if I was bouncing on my heels, hissing, “Let me at him. I’m going to beat that crypt keeper within an inch of his life,” under his breath.

“Sorry. I just—I saw the tattoo and…no offense but you don’t look like the type. Did you get it when you were younger?”

Mr. Hilton chuckled. “Oh yes, just before college. It was part of my initiation into the Odyssey Society,” he said, touching the wolf’s head on his wrist as though it evoked a fond memory. “It’s an adventurer’s club of sorts. My great great grandfather started it himself. We technically don’t allow boys to become members until they’re eighteen but we don’t mind if they come along with their fathers. I invited your father to join several times but he’s much too busy with his work.”

“It’s men only?”

“Of course not. Don’t think me sexist, dear. We’ve had a few women join in the past. Rhys thought Fin would be a good match for it before his…accident. He’s been far more active in it lately to cope with the death.”

My thoughts drifted to the red and green fingers in Belmont’s memory and the same colored walls in the unborn baby’s nursery. The only family member I could truly disregard was his youngest brother, Bradley. All of the insane theories in the world could never make me believe that a five year old boy was capable of murder, especially one who once cried after accidentally crushing an ant. Mr. Hilton told me how the club intended to explore a series of caves just outside town during the weekend.

“Do you think I could go? I know I’m not a member but it sounds fun and it would be perfect for some inspiration…for my piece at the exhibition.”

He seemed unsure about letting me join the excursion, noting that Chief Parker was one of the members. “I don’t think your parents would feel comfortable with that,” he said, waving at a passing Nurse Simpson.

“But you’ll be there. I doubt he’d try anything with you around, sir. Please? I’ve never been the type to take risks and who knows how many chances I’ll get for an adventure like this? I promise not to be any trouble.”

After considering it for a few minutes, he grinned. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. You will need a parent’s permission, of course. I require that of any minors who travel with us and you will need to dress appropriately.”

I nodded eagerly, letting him think that I was excited to explore a cave when I was truly interested in investigating Rhys Belmont and Chief Parker.

“You know, sometimes, I wish that Claire was more like you, Tessa. I’ve tried to get her to explore hundreds of times on vacations but she’d rather spend all day in the spa. We leave at nine o’clock sharp on Saturday. I’ll send one of my drivers to pick you up and take you to the house half an hour before.”

“Can’t wait. Thank you so much, Mr. Hilton. I should get to homeroom. It was nice talking to you.”

“Always a pleasure, dear.”

The moment I stepped into the AP Biology classroom, I felt Hilton’s icy blue eyes burning into me. I hesitated to sit at the back table where Amy saved me a seat beside her but thought it was a slightly better option than the awkward stares from my classmates. Dr. Baxter was one of several pairs of eyes watching me as I headed to the back of the room.

“What did my dad want with you this time, Byrne? Is he paying for your hospital bills too?” whispered Hilton, not bothering to hide the fury in her voice. “How is he helping his little charity case today?”

“We were just talking about Will’s dad and uh the trip he’s taking with his adventure club. I said it sounded fun and he said I could go.”

The pen she was using to draw in her notebook poked through the page. Parker, overhearing the conversation, leaned towards the table with a smile.

“You’re going too? I didn’t think you’d be into that stuff. Always with the surprises, Byrne. If you get too scared, feel free to hold onto me.”

A paper ball struck the side of my face. “You? Why would he let you go? Your dad’s not even—you’re not…is this all part of your plan, bitch?” said Hilton with a sneer.

“W—what plan?” I asked, my eyes darting to Elena.

She shrugged, looking just as clueless as me and the rest of Hilton’s friends. Dr. Baxter was discussing the art exhibition and Mrs. Allen’s offer for extra credit by creating a piece for the gallery.

“Is that why you let Chace make you all pretty too? To get his attention?” she asked, slamming her notebook shut. “You didn’t need that. He was noticing you back when you were a pathetic little girl in baggy sweaters. You might have everyone else fooled but not me. I’ve known exactly who you are since that first day in second grade. Soon enough, everyone will see that you’re nothing more than a manipulative little schemer who hides behind her doe eyes and ‘please pity me’ face. You’re—”

“Miss Hilton, is the exhibition so boring that you need to have your own side conversation?” interrupted Dr. Baxter.

Twenty pairs of eyes were now looking in my direction as the other students shifted in their seats. I wished that I was able to turn invisible at will or at least teleport myself to another room. Hilton feigned a smile at the dark-skinned man with high cheekbones who looked like he belonged on the cover of GQ, not discussing extra credit opportunities with a group of high school students (the man who was also her secret boyfriend, according to Parker).

“I’m sorry, sir. I was just saying that Tessa’s skirt is so pretty. It really shows off her legs, don’t you think?”

“As a teacher, I think it would be inappropriate to comment on such a thing.”

“When is it appropriate? When you’re at a high school party and too busy staring at her to pay attention to your girlfriend?” I shrunk down in my seat, whispers erupting from her remark. “You didn’t have a problem with telling your friend on the phone all about her sexy legs and how you wanted to slip your tongue—”

“Miss Hilton, that’s enough!” The bell rang, signaling the end of homeroom. “I would like a word with you. The rest of you, get to your first class.”

I began to follow Amy to AP English when I felt a sharp tug on the back of my jacket. Belmont dragged me back towards the door. Instead of saying a word, he pointed towards the door then put a finger to his lips. I peeked through the small window, seeing Hilton on Dr. Baxter’s desk with her legs crossed. He paced back and forth, muttering to himself.

“Discretion is all I asked for, Claire. I thought you were smart enough to be careful with your words. If those pack of morons understood what you meant—”

She scoffed, taking her nail file out of her purse. “They didn’t. Fin was the only one who knew and he’s dead. Stop freaking out over nothing. It’s not like I was lying. I heard you that night. Surprised I didn’t find you jacking off behind a tree.”

“Is that what this is all about? Your jealousy? I’m not a teenage boy, Claire. I don’t care for your childish rivalries.”

“That bitch started it. If you think I’m so childish, why don’t you dump me and hook up with her? You obviously don’t care about me. You’ll have to get in line. I think my dad wants a shot first since he’s throwing all this money at her and her mom. Looks like you’re not the only one trying for a mother-daughter combo.”

Dr. Baxter silenced her with a backhanded slap. Belmont stopped me from opening the door, leaving Hilton to clasp her cheek in pain. The fear reflected in her eyes suggested that it was not the first time he had gotten rough with her. He grabbed her by the front of her dress, his nails digging into her breast.

“S—stop it.”

“You’re right, Claire. I don’t give a damn about you. Fin was right when he told you that I was just using you out of boredom. You were all too willing, what with the flirting and wanting to impress your friends with your secret, older boyfriend. To me, you’re second best, just as your father sees you.”

Claire whimpered, struggling to remove his hand. He gripped her dress so tightly that it caused a slight tear.

“Oh, apologies, I tore your nice dress. Now, I’m only going to say this once. You are going to stop antagonizing that girl. She’s been through enough, don’t you think? Put your petty jealousy aside and for once, be mature.”

She spat in his face. “Screw you. Just because I let you have all this,” she said, indicating her curvaceous body. “Doesn’t mean you can tell me who I can and can’t torment. That face of yours isn’t good enough to make me forget how much I hate that stupid—”

He slammed her head into the desk. Thinking on my feet, I pulled the fire alarm near the girls’ bathroom. Within seconds, a blaring sound, loud and irritating enough to make one’s ears bleed, rang through the hallways and students casually walked out of their classrooms, knowing that there was no danger of an actual fire. Mrs. Allen hushed a group of gossiping freshman girls and urged them to stay in a single file line. She scowled when one girl quietly commented that talking did not affect their ability to leave the building.

I slipped into the line of students leaving the computer lab and waited outside, keeping an eye out for Hilton. Five minutes into the fake fire drill, I found her with Amy, rubbing concealer over a cut on her cheek. After Principal Hilton reprimanded the entire student body for one miscreant fooling around with the fire alarm (“Free beer for whoever did it!” shouted Parker to a chorus of laughter), she allowed us back into the building. Dr. Baxter was sitting behind his desk, wiping the blood under his nails.

“Byrne, don’t be stupid,” whispered Belmont, clutching my arm.

“He’s right, Tessa. Look at what he did to Claire. He’s always a creep but he’s even worse in a bad mood. Just go to class,” said Elena.

I wrenched my arm from Belmont’s grasp and walked into the classroom. Dr. Baxter was typing on a laptop, likely searching for some video to show his class instead of teaching an actual lesson. He lifted his head up when I shut the laptop.

“Tessa, shouldn’t you be in class? If this is about what happened in homeroom, I already spoke to Claire. She won’t be doing that again.”

“Why, because you slapped her?”

“I’m sorry?” He acted confused though his nervous eye twitch betrayed him. “You’re mistaken. I would never raise my hand at a student.”

“Oh, spare me. I saw you. I can’t stop her from hooking up with vile trash but even if we’re not friends, it doesn’t mean I’ll let you hurt someone like that. If you ever hurt her again, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” he asked, sounding more like a challenge than a question.

“I don’t have specifics right now but trust me, you’ll regret it.” Belmont scoffed at my failure of a threat. “Stop taking advantage of girls half your age.”

My right foot had not even passed through the door when Dr. Baxter pushed it close with one hand and spun me around with the other. His body was pressed against mine, not even an inch of space between us. I grimaced at the feeling of something hard brushing my inner thigh.

“I guess I can’t help it. Some men like blondes, some like brunettes, some like them skinny, some like them a bit thicker, some like them nice and sweet, some like them a little nasty…I prefer teenage girls with sharp tongues. Yours has gotten very sharp lately, hasn’t it?”

“G—get off me.”

“If you saw me slap poor Claire, then I’m sure you heard what I said after that. It is the truth, isn’t it? It would take more than a little smile to make your knees go weak.” As he spoke, I waved my hand in a circular motion, a silent sign for Elena and Belmont to not hit him, at risk of exposing themselves. “But I enjoy that. You’ve made it difficult for me now that you’ve decided to abandon your usual style. I used to imagine what you look like under the sweatshirts and I have to say, my imagination didn’t do you justice.”

He snatched my hand, inches away from his face, and leaned close to my ear. “You’ve kept me up so many nights, Tessa, and I’d love to take what I want, right here and now, but I’ll be a gentleman. Do be careful though. The sharper your tongue gets, the less I may be able to resist and I can only be a gentleman for so long. You won’t have a stapler to help you then,” he whispered, his breath on my neck making me cringe.

My trembling hand managed to grab the door handle and I hurried into the nearest bathroom, wanting to scrub away the feeling of his hands on me. Elena suggested leaving an anonymous tip to Principal Hilton about his affair with her daughter, though the note could leave out Hilton’s name.

“It would take less than five minutes for her mother to figure it out, Elena. I don’t want to drag Hilton into this. He knew I got attacked in Will’s house.”

Belmont was fixing his hair in the mirror. “He could’ve found that out from any cop, Byrne. More than half the town’s in love with him. Guy’s a grade A jackass but you have to admit, he’s good looking. He knows some of the younger cops. I bet one of them mentioned it to him. You need to work on your threats. You couldn’t scare a rabbit.” He caught my reflection. “What? Why are you smiling?”

“Because you were a decent person. I wouldn’t have seen what he did if you didn’t drag me back to the classroom. You knew he hit her before, didn’t you?”

“She mentioned it a couple times. It was nothing,” he muttered.

“It could’ve been a lot worse than a cut on her cheek. You helped her.”

His lips curved into a fraction of a smile. “Ooh, he does one nice thing. Let’s congratulate him for acting like a normal person,” said Elena sarcastically, looking irked by my compliment. “I’m going outside to find some dog poop to put in Baxter’s coffee. You should get to English before they think you fainted or something.”

She disappeared from her spot by the sink, leaving me and Belmont alone in the bathroom. Knowing their tumultuous past, I doubted that I needed to explain her coldness towards him.

“That girl can hold a grudge like nobody else,” he said, flicking open his lighter.

“Can you blame her? You weren’t exactly Prince Charming when you two dated or when you were just friends.”

“Look, I know I was pretty bad back then but I’m not that per—” I crossed my arms. “I’m trying to be better. To be honest, dying helped me see that and you’re kinda part of that too. You’re the only person who’s willing to give me a chance and who wants to help me. My own family won’t even consider that my death wasn’t an accident. I was a jerk to you that night and you’re still willing to help me out. I don’t get it.”

“It’s called being a nice person. Somewhere deep, deep, deep inside you is one too and I think a tiny part of him came out this morning. Give Elena time. I’m not saying she’ll ever be best friends with you again but someday, she might be able to tolerate you.”

Elena eventually returned during the last period of the day, Art. She claimed that she was spying on Dr. Baxter but I knew better, that she wanted time away from Belmont. It was challenging enough for her to be near him, doing her best for the sole purpose of protecting me. In her mind, my small compliment was comparable to me forgetting my own past troubles with him. She was the last person who would believe that Belmont could ever be a decent person.

I sat outside on the front steps, waiting for Garren to arrive at the school. My eyes constantly flickered to my phone to check the time, in hopes that he would not back out of our deal. I had not known Garren long but despite having a giant stick up his backside, he had some sense of honor. Parker encouraged me to watch his football practice, even offering me a ride home.

“My ride’s almost here. Don’t be late to practice.”

“Coach won’t mind if I’m a little late. I’m the star player, after all. I can always skip it and we can go somewhere.”

“I heard you talking to your friends. You’re supposed to hang out with them at the Falls after practice. You don’t have to ditch your plans. It’ll only give Hilton more reason to hate me.”

“She doesn’t hate—okay, she hates you with a fiery passion.” I stifled a laugh. “Claire’s always been the jealous type. Ignore her.”

“It’s what I’ve been doing for the past ten years.”

Katie passed by the front doors in her cheerleading uniform. She called out Amy’s name in frustration, warning her of Hilton’s threat to remove her from the squad for being late.

“Have you seen her, Tessa? Claire sent me to find her but it’s like she vanished.”

“Not since art class, sorry. Did you try calling her?”

“Y—no, I didn’t think of that. My head’s been all jumbled since…”

Her voice trailed off as fresh tears pooled in her eyes. She sniffled to regain her composure and called Amy’s phone.

“Amy, finally. I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Where—what?” Katie’s confused gaze fell on me. “Yeah, Tessa’s right here. Why? Okay, okay, I’ll let you talk to her. One second.”

She tapped the screen and I heard Amy sing, her melodious voice echoing through the phone. Since we were eight, she had been the lead in numerous plays, whether it was produced by the school or the local theater. She was known for her passion for singing, never missing an opportunity to show off her talent. In one of our conversations during lunch, she had mentioned that while she was away at college, pursuing a business degree to appease her parents, she hoped to be discovered by a talent agent to achieve her true dream of being on Broadway.

Parker joked that it was too early to begin practicing for the spring musical and while I was not opposed to listening to her sing, finding her voice soothing, her choice of song unnerved me. My hands gripped the stone steps.

“Tessa? What is it?” asked Elena, noticing my odd reaction.

“When will we meet again, my sweet? My heart aches for you so. Will it be by the old oak tree? The one where we shared those kisses three?”

I grabbed Katie’s phone. “Amy? Where are you?”

“The roof,” she replied, before continuing to sing.

“Tessa, wait up!” shouted Parker as I dashed up three flights of stairs to the roof.

Amy was standing on the ledge, a gust of wind blowing back her cropped, dark hair. Hearing me call her name, she turned around, looking frightened.

“Amy, why are you on the roof? Get down before you fall.”

“I tried to stop but he made me stand here. He made me sing that song.”

“He? Who brought you up here?”

“I don’t…it was in my head. He said he was using me to punish you because you didn’t listen. Why can’t I get down?”

“I’ll help you, okay?” I was distracted by a banging noise. Katie and Parker were unable to open the door, which somehow locked behind me. “Just give me your hand and I’ll help you down.”

As I reached for her hand, the fearful expression fell from her face, replaced with a sadistic smile. She cackled loudly and purposely leaned over the edge of the roof.

“Itty bitty Tessa didn’t listen. Didn’t she hear what I said? Now the little bird will fall,” she said in a disembodied voice, her eyes turning milky white.

“Get out of her now.”

“I let your friend live last time. This time, you won’t be that lucky. Her blood is on your hands. This is your punishment. Every time you disobey, another friend dies. I can hurt your invisible friends too. I’ll kill Fin all over again then I’ll kill Elena while you watch helplessly. I’ll make sure her death lasts the longest.”

“S—stop it. You don’t have to hurt her. It’s me you want so kill me. Just leave Amy alone.”

She pouted. “But we don’t want to kill you. Master wants you alive. Master is trying to help you. So much potential and you waste it on these pieces of flesh,” she said, patting her cheek. “With each death, you’ll care less and less until you realize that they mean nothing.”

“I don’t know who’s controlling you but I am nothing like your master. Every person means something, whether they’re like me or not. I won’t let you take another life!”

A warm sensation grazed my wrist. My raven-shaped birthmark turned solid black, reminiscent of the night I saved Katie, and Amy tilted her head back, a cloud of black smoke emerging from her mouth. As Amy remained on the ledge, in an almost catatonic state, the shadow creature appeared in front of her, growling. The creature lunged towards me and out of instinct, I crouched down, with my hands over my head. A flash of golden light washed over me, my wrist feeling like it was on fire. I waited for the creature’s attack but I heard nothing but the wind.

“B—Byrne, what is that?” I heard Belmont say behind me.

Moving my hands, I saw the creature swatting at a golden light in the shape of a raven. The raven passed through the creature, slicing it in half and reducing it to a pile of ash. I stepped back as the raven flew towards me and perched itself on the palm of my hand, turning into a thin black dagger with its blade in the shape of a scythe.

I stuffed the dagger in my jacket pocket and helped a bemused Amy down from the ledge. She had no recollection of how she ended up on the roof and before I could think of a convincing lie, the door broke open, Parker, Garren, and Katie fell to the ground, piled on top of each other. Garren managed to extricate himself first and almost tripped over his own feet in his hurry to check on both me and Amy.

Breathless, he lied that he was driving past the school when he saw Amy standing on the roof. He passed off the suspiciously locked door on a piece of wood jammed into the door frame, which was enough to convince Amy, Parker, and Katie.

“Officer Garren, I swear I don’t know how I got up here. Maybe someone was playing a prank on me. My vitamin water kind of tasted funny.”

“I’m sure that’s it. Do you need to go to the hospital? I was heading that way to take Tessa for a checkup.”

“No. I have to get to cheer practice. Claire is probably so mad,” she said, running down the steps as though she had not been seconds away from plummeting to her death.

I followed Garren to a red sedan, instead of the usual police car. He drove around the corner before parking along the sidewalk, concerned by my silence.

“What happened to Amy? Was it one of those creatures?”

“Yeah, it possessed her but this time, it was different. She heard it in her head and it forced her up to the roof,” said Elena, answering for me. “It made Amy sing a song. I’ve never heard it before.”

“My grandmother used to sing it,” I explained, twirling the pendant of my necklace between my fingers. “She sang it all the time when we visited my grandfather’s grave. The last time I heard it was the day she got attacked. We were all supposed to go to the zoo and when my mother found her, my grandmother was lying on the living room, unconscious. Her stereo was playing that song on a loop, like it was taunting her…telling her that she’d be reunited with my grandfather soon. No one could know the meaning of that song besides my family and whoever attacked her.”

“You think it’s the same person who killed me? The reaper?” asked Belmont.

“Who else could it be? They had to be stalking my grandmother for awhile if they recorded her singing just for that tape. The creature said their master doesn’t want to kill me. What if they want to use me to get at my grandmother? To finish what they started...”

Garren was firmly in denial of the reaper theory. As he began to list off several reasons that it was improbable, starting with his beloved council being aware of all actions committed by reapers and guardians, the blade of the dagger glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window. He reached into my jacket pocket.

“Hey, you can at least ask. What is this, violate personal space day? First Baxter, now you…” He stared at the strange dagger, his eyes wide. “I was going to show you that after you talked to your precious Angie. I don’t want you thinking I have some weird knife collection so I’ll just tell you now. That creature was about to attack me and this golden raven appeared out of nowhere.”

“Came out of her birthmark. It was just light and then it looked like a raven,” added Elena, slapping Belmont’s hand as he reached into the bag of chips on her lap.

“Didn’t see that part but I did see the weird raven slice one of those creatures in half and then it turned into the dagger. That’s all I—”

“What did you do?!”

“N—nothing,” I stuttered, taken aback by his shouting. “I told you what happened. Why are you freaking out?”

“Y—you shouldn’t…this can’t be here. The council will—oh gods, my father will never let me hear the end of it. This is all your fault,” he said, pointing at Belmont who stuffed a handful of chips in his mouth and mumbled, “What did I do?” in between bites. “She was fine until you came along and started toying with her head. We wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t—we need to get rid of it.”

I snatched the dagger from him. “Uh no. We need to keep it because it’s the only thing that hurts those shadow creatures. It saved my life. What’s got your panties in a knot?”

Garren leaned his head against the steering wheel. The way he was acting, it was like the dagger was a weapon used to murder the council leader and possessing it would frame us for the crime.

He quietly explained, not raising his voice above a whisper, that the dagger was a treasured artifact, the blade of Charon. It was one of the weapons used by the ferryman of the same name to guard the passage to the Underworld and keep its many monsters from escaping out into the rest of the world. The blade was entrusted to the council for safekeeping centuries ago and was protected by all sorts of enchantments, hidden in a place only known by its members.

Though I tried to tell him that it was not my fault, he was having a full blown panic attack. “I swear I didn’t summon it or perform a creepy ritual to bring it here. Like I said, my birthmark shot out a raven that killed the creature and then turned into…this. I don’t know how. I never even knew about it until now.”

“You’ve certainly gotten better at lying. How do I know you didn’t read about it in one of your books, figured out its location, and sent Elena or Fin to retrieve it?”

“That’s insane. Okay, if I knew it could kill those creatures, I probably would’ve tried to find it” My honesty caused him to become short of breath. “But I swear on my little brother’s life that I was clueless about it until five minutes ago. You know I’m telling the truth. If it’s so protected, why did it show up? This happened before…when I saved Katie. The dagger didn’t appear but my birthmark went all dark and then that first creature vanished.”

“We’ll talk to your mother. Perhaps she knows a way to send it back before the council realizes that it’s missing. If Cedric finds out…but he won’t because we’ll tell your mother after this little plan with Angela fails. Is it hot in here? Am I the only one sweating?”

Belmont, not helping matters, suggested that the blame was solely on Garren for this dagger mishap. If he had shown up at the school on time, he could have protected me from the shadow creature himself but because of his tardiness, I was forced to summon a mystical dagger that was allegedly off limits to reapers. His taunts were slowly leading Garren to his breaking point, his hands gripping the wheel. Instead of voicing his anger, he settled for seizing the bag of chips and crushing the remaining chips into pieces.

He threw the crumpled bag at Belmont’s face then headed inside the Blue Moon café, where Angela Starr, swiping on lip gloss, was sitting at a table by the window. She was dressed in her usual attire that was better suited for Beverly Hills, with her six inch peep toe heels and a sleeveless, floral print dress. The bow-shaped belt around her waist highlighted her unnaturally skinny frame and her neatly trimmed nails were freshly painted with a French manicure, diamond studs separating the white and clear polish. Her cherry red lips, long eyelashes, and the light blush accentuating the cheekbones of her tanned, oval face gave her the appearance of a living doll.

I never understood why she wasted her time as a journalist in Belmont Falls when she clearly had aspirations of stardom. A passing tourist would see her as a sweet young woman with a passion for journalism but those who lived in Belmont Falls knew that her doll-like appearance was merely a façade, hiding her truly ugly personality. Angela Starr was, no doubt, ambitious, doing all kinds of things, mostly illegal, to get her hands on a good story and her willingness to slander anyone made her plenty of enemies.

The adults in town outright despised her and her malicious tactics. She was much more popular with the teenagers, particularly Hilton and her clique, who devoured her articles as ammunition for their bullying.

I sat at a table directly across from her, pretending to text on my phone. Upon seeing Garren, she let out a girlish giggle and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Ollie, it’s been forever. I’m so touched that you missed me. I got your favorite. Coffee, two sugars.”

As they sat down at the table, her fingers rested on his wrist like a snake coiled around a tree branch.

“Heh, well I saw that you were back in town when we were dealing with the Connor Mitchell accident. How was Los Angeles?”

“So amazing. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always love this town but being in LA is just…it’s like a whole other world. I even got to talk to some people about expanding my blog into an actual show. How awesome would that be?” she said, taking a sip from her vanilla soy latte.

“It would be very impressive. Imagine using your talents to get the latest gossip on celebrities. None of them would be able to hide their secrets from you.”

Unsurprisingly, Angela boasted about herself and her potential fame. Garren was hardly able to say one word before she redirected the conversation back to her trip to Los Angeles. Whenever she mentioned a man or the occasional woman flirting with her, she seemed to be gauging his reaction, waiting for a hint of jealousy.

She flashed him a seductive smile. “I think I know why you asked me to meet you.”

“It’s about the Fin Belmont case.” Those six words altered her mood considerably. She retracted her hand from his wrist, as if it was made of lava. “Angie, I’m sorry if you thought…”

“Thought what?” she asked, coolly. “This is so typical of you, Ollie. You just want to use me and then you’ll avoid me like a plague until you need me again.”

“It isn’t like that at all,” he assured her, reaching for her hand. “I—I’ve always…no matter how I feel, I can’t go against Chief Parker’s orders. He’s my boss and if he found out that we were seeing each other, he’d fire me on the spot.”

“I get why you’re scared of him after what he did to that poor Byron girl.” Garren’s eyes widened, realizing that she was referring to me. “Yeah, I know about that. After a few beers, Danny will talk about anything. If he wasn’t so close to Charles, you know he’d be the one getting fired. Why are you looking into Fin Belmont’s death? It was ruled an accident.”

“One of his classmates doesn’t think it was and I thought speaking with you would help prove their suspicions wrong. I mean, if you had any information to the contrary, you would’ve posted it on your blog, no matter the consequences.”

Her hazel green eyes sparkled with excitement. “No, they’re right. I’ve been sitting on this for weeks now and I’ve been dying to post it but I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous. It’s about the Belmont family, after all. The last time I posted a remotely scandalous thing about one of them, Charles pretty much threatened to kill me. Remember that article on their spring break trip to Cancun? It was taken down in like thirty seconds. Didn’t stop someone from taking a quick screenshot to keep circulating it but I guess a blurry picture is easier to dismiss than a full article.”

Angela retrieved her laptop from her leather purse. Garren’s eager smile was as fake as the toupée on the middle-aged café owner’s head. When he agreed to meet her, he hoped that it would prove pointless and dissuade me from continuing the investigation into Belmont’s death. She opened up several documents on her laptop, including a copy of the life insurance policy. Most of the documents were statements from the staff at Belmont Manor, willing to divulge a few secrets in exchange for money.

The maids reported overhearing numerous arguments between Belmont and his father in the days leading up to his death. One maid, who had been cleaning the kitchen the night before the incident, witnessed Mr. Belmont threatening to disown his son if he leaked a well-guarded secret.

“She didn’t hear all the details but it was enough to do my own research. Katrina’s about four months along in her pregnancy. Those maids hear everything, Ollie, and I mean everything. The last time they heard Charles and his little wife getting intimate? Eight months ago, give or take a few weeks. That baby isn’t his.”

Hearing Angela theorize about the possible fathers of the unborn baby sparked Fin’s own memories. He whispered to me and Elena that he remembered the fight with his father and how he learned about the secret. Coming home after a grueling football practice, he overheard his parents arguing about his mother keeping the baby. His father wanted her to terminate the pregnancy, disgusted by the idea of his wife’s baby being fathered by another man.

Though his mother strongly denied any affairs, his father threatened to divorce her and leave her penniless, the same as she was when they first met years ago, though his exact words were ‘a penniless, desperate whore’. Belmont used the secret as leverage to protect his mother, knowing that his father would never want the town to learn such a secret.
He was willing to believe his mother’s claims that the baby was truly his father’s; the baby the product of a hazy, drunken memory from a night spent in St. Tropez.

“Somehow, Fin found out. We all know how much he hated his father and wanted to leave this town, never look back. This was his ticket out.”

“So your theory is that his father took out this life insurance policy then killed him to keep the secret? I hardly see why he would be that threatened. Even if Fin exposed the truth about the baby, he wasn’t known for being reliable. I doubt anyone would have believed him.”

“Not exactly. I think Robot Rosalie is in on it too. She’s got her lips so firmly attached to his ass that she’d do anything for him. She’s daddy’s little girl. I traced back the document to the insurance agent and talked with him at a bar in New Orleans. Three hours later plus my lucky bra and my favorite little black dress? He told me that Rosalie was the one who met with him about the life insurance.”

Angela showed him security footage of Rosalie meeting the insurance agent in his office. “She claimed that her parents were being cautious since Fin planned to go on a little adventure with Rhys after graduation. I think the money from the policy was going to be used for his mother after the divorce, to keep her quiet about any other secrets in that family.”

I remembered how Mr. Mitchell mentioned the offshore account in Greece to my father. If Angela was right, the plan was for Mrs. Belmont to be sent there after giving birth to live a comfortable life, far away from the rest of her family.

“Why haven’t you told anyone about this? You have video evidence plus testimony from the insurance agent.”

“Except I don’t. The morning after our night together, I woke up alone in the hotel bed. He left a note that he needed to leave town for a few days to visit family but he would be willing to meet with me again. That was three weeks ago, Ollie, and I checked the handwriting on the note to a note in his office. Pieces of it don’t match.” Copies of the two notes appeared side by side on the screen, the differences between them circled in red. “Last night, I finally tracked his credit card to another hotel in New Orleans and found out that he was last seen with his body hanging from a ceiling fan. The cops there said he left behind a suicide note, stress over a recent divorce and the usual cliché crap.”

“Angie, you don’t think—”

“Of course I do and you’re thinking it too. Charles Belmont got to him first to tie up the loose ends. As much as I love a scandal, I love my life a little more.”

She checked a message on her phone. “I need to get to the hospital to talk with Connor Mitchell. Hopefully, I get there before your boss does and I find out that Mitchell slit his own throat. It was nice seeing you. Maybe we can have another coffee date and talk about something a little more cheerful than murder?”

“Anytime you like. Just please don’t keep looking into this case. If you’re right about what happened to that insurance agent—”

“Hey, I always go after the big stories. You don’t have to worry about me. Just because I walk in six inch heels and wear miniskirts, it doesn’t mean I can’t take care of myself.”

Giving him a quick peck on the cheek, she left the café. For someone who had been initially against just leaving her a voicemail, the concern was written all over his face. The meeting with the conceited yet unexpectedly resourceful Angela Starr had not only given us new pieces of information linked to Belmont’s death, but a possible ally in Garren.


Submitted: July 29, 2016

© Copyright 2021 skv. All rights reserved.

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