He let go of her cautiously, watching her for any sign that she might not be ready to stand on her own.
“Er, thanks.” She started to feel the lagging humiliation wash over her.
She took an unsteady step back and saw that, beneath his orange vest, he was wearing the standard-issue uniform of the Buckley Police Department. He was one of her uncle Stephen’s officers.
She didn’t recognize his face, and she silently hoped that he didn’t recognize her, especially since she’d practically run him over.
“Sorry about that,” she offered lamely.
“Don’t worry about it. Did you need something?” he asked her. He raised one eyebrow, studying her. “Did you find something?”
Violet had the sudden, inexplicable feeling that she shouldn’t tell this man anything, and she wondered a little at why she would feel that way. “No,” she stammered, uncomfortable about lying to a cop. “No, nothing like that. I was just…leaving.”
He looked down at her, and she wondered if he believed her. She wasn’t even sure that she’d been moving in the right direction if she had actually been leaving.
She met his gaze, smoothing her face into what she hoped looked like a convincing smile. “Thanks, by the way,” she said, trying to laugh at her own clumsiness. “You know, for catching me.”
He smiled back and reached out to pat her on the shoulder. She felt the vague buzzing again, and she realized that it was coming off him. An imprint, probably…not all that unusual for someone who carried a gun for a living.
“Anytime,” he responded. “Just take it easy. Oh, and keep an eye on where you’re going—it can be dangerous out here.”
His warning hadn’t really been necessary. Everyone who was out here this morning knew just how dangerous it could be.
But Violet knew, better than anyone else, what the real danger in the woods was today.
She thanked him again and moved away as casually as she could, trying to maintain the appearance that she was calmer than she felt, all the while focusing to stay tuned in to the sound of the haunting bells that were still too far away from her. Once she was sure she was out of the officer’s sight, she sped up again, paying little notice to where she was stepping.
The sweetly melodic sounds drew her closer…seeming to pull at her from the inside out.
She came upon it quickly, much more quickly than she’d expected, thinking that it was farther away…so distant. But now she was sure he was nearby.
She slowed down, only now noticing that her shoes were muddy and the lower half of her jeans were soaking wet and filthy. She wasn’t cold, she wasn’t even afraid, but she was shivering, and her teeth were nearly chattering as she shuddered all over. She thought that it must be the anticipation, the adrenaline coursing through her as she approached a killer, still not knowing what she would do when she saw him.
She looked around. The bells were nearly deafening here, louder even than they’d been at Brooke’s grave site. A volunteer moved past her, but she knew when she looked at him that he wasn’t the source of the echoes.
Violet was sure, beyond any doubt, that she would recognize the killer immediately when she saw him.
She slowly scrutinized the area now, searching for something that no one else knew how to find. She moved in and out of stands of evergreens and stepped around the giant ferns that sprang up from the damp, shadowed forest floor.
She passed other searchers, as voices called out from all directions, but nothing could penetrate the musical chimes of the bells.
She saw the oil-slick echo, like the one that had come off the dead girl in the lake, clinging to him before she saw anything else. It seemed to glow, shimmering over him in slippery ripples that danced over his skin, obscuring the rest of him from her immediate view.
Violet felt as if her airway were squeezing shut, making her feel unexpectedly light-headed.
It was him.
Brooke’s bells…the oily sheen from the body in the lake…both attached to him. And there were other echoes too…tastes…and smells…and colors. There were too many for Violet to differentiate one from another, as they created something less innocuous than the staticky white noise created by those who had been laid to rest. Instead he carried them, in all their furor, parading them around like a bonfire that signaled to her.
She almost couldn’t believe that she’d never sensed him before.
He didn’t see her, and amid the chaos of the search, with all the activity in the area, she stood out no more than any one of the hundreds of volunteers in the woods this morning. She drew back, only a little, to watch him, unnoticed from behind the wide trunk of a tree.
His back was to her, and she could see that, beneath the imprints of death, he was wearing the same exact vest as the other searchers that milled around the forest. He had joined the search for Mackenzie Sherwin. But to what end?
He turned sideways, and she glimpsed his face. Violet observed him. Only his behavior was different from the other volunteers. He was there, wearing the conspicuous vest, but he wasn’t searching. He wasn’t really even moving. He hovered…waiting… in the same place.
No one else seemed to notice, because to their eyes, and with their attention on other matters, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him. He wasn’t young and he wasn’t old. He was neither attractive nor unattractive. His bland expression looked passive enough. And Violet thought that he could probably live his entire life in anonymity, barely given a second glance. He certainly didn’t look like a killer. He blended perfectly.