Wildflower Graves – Rita Herron

“How does it feel to know your parents covered for a serial killer?” Detective Ellie Reeves shifted restlessly in her seat. That was a loaded question and one she didn’t know how to answer. Not to the local press or to this therapist. Not even to herself. Nervous energy made her tap her foot on the wood floor of the counselor’s office. She’d resisted seeing a shrink since her life had fallen apart three weeks ago, just as she’d resisted a tell-all with the press. They were already having a field day torching her parents for what they’d done. She couldn’t blame them either. The therapist, a slender woman with a chin-length brown bob named Kennedy Sledge, cleared her throat. “Take your time and tell me what happened,” she said softly. Ellie stared at her fingernails where she’d chewed them down to the nubs. “I know you saw the news. A little girl named Penny Matthews went missing a few weeks ago. While looking for her, I learned she was part of a serial killer’s pattern that went back two decades. They called him the Ghost.

He lured his victims, all young girls, with small wooden dolls he carved.” “Yes, I saw the news.” The counselor nodded encouragement. “But you saved and rescued Penny and another child that was taken.” Ellie nodded, taking some comfort in the fact that the little girls were back with their families. She’d thought once that case was solved Crooked Creek would return to normal, hosting small-town festivals, porch sitting and potluck dinners. “Ellie?” the therapist prompted when the silence stretched between them. Ellie took a deep breath. “I discovered that the man who took them was my mother’s illegitimate son, who she gave up for adoption ten years before I was born. Mom was only a teenager when she got pregnant.

Her parents, especially her father, insisted the baby, Hiram, would be better off in a home with two parents.” Now that she’d started talking, the words spewed from her. “Although Mom thought he was in a happy family, she felt guilty about giving him up. So she adopted me when I was three.” Kennedy drummed two fingers on her desk, and Ellie noticed a tiny scar on her wrist. “So you are not blood related to Hiram?” Ellie shook her head. “No, but that hasn’t been made public knowledge yet. When Hiram was fourteen, he found out about me. He hated my mother, Vera. But most of all he resented me for taking her away from him.

” “But you didn’t take her away from him, Ellie.” Perspiration beaded on Ellie’s forehead and she wiped it away with a shaky hand. “No, but he believed I did. Anyway, to cut a long story short. When I was five, he lured me into the woods and left me trapped in a cave. When my father found me, and I told him the boy’s name was Hiram, my parents moved us to Stony Gap and changed our names.” Her stomach churned. “Then Hiram started taking other little girls. He killed them because he… wanted to kill me.” Suddenly feeling ill, she remembered the sight of the children’s graves she’d found in the woods of the Appalachian Mountains.

She stood. “This is a waste of time. Talking won’t change anything.” “Processing your feelings can help you move on,” the counselor said. “I know you’re angry with your parents.” “They lied to me all my life,” Ellie said, her voice cracking. “And they suspected Hiram but didn’t come forward.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “People in town think I knew. And that we covered for a killer.

I’m a detective––how does that make me look?” Either complicit or incompetent. Neither elicited trust from the citizens of Bluff County. The therapist made a note on her notepad. “How are your parents handling the accusations?” Ellie picked at her cuticles. “They’ve been charged with withholding evidence and accessory to murder, but they’ve attained a big-shot attorney who promised he’d get the charges dropped, starting an uproar in town.” Heat climbed her neck. “Everywhere I go, I hear the whispers and see the stares.” Through the window the sun was shining like a beacon, nearly blinding her just as her parents lies had. Kennedy leaned forward, arms on the desk. “There’s an online group you should join.

Women talking to each other, sharing, offering support. It’s secure, anonymous, so you don’t have to divulge your real identity if you don’t want to.” The counselor pushed a business card toward her, and Ellie reluctantly slipped it into her pocket. Unsettled at the idea of pouring out her heart to strangers, Ellie paced across the room, noting the woman’s credentials on the wall and books that filled the bookshelf. They covered a range of psychological subjects––eating disorders, depression and anxiety, behavioral disorders. She’d never been one to surround herself with female friends. Truth be known, Officer Shondra Eastwood, her colleague, was her only female friend. They’d bonded because of their mutual dislike for Bryce Waters, Bluff County’s sheriff. “I’ll think about it. Right now, I just need to get back to work,” Ellie finally answered.

Work was her salvation, even though her reputation with Crooked Creek’s police department was shaky to say the least. Her own parents had fooled her. How could she trust her judgment now? “So you’re back at work already?” Kennedy asked. Ellie bit down on her lower lip. “Actually, my boss, Captain Hale, ordered me to take time off to heal and let the dust settle.” Or maybe he was questioning her abilities, too. “How do you feel about being adopted?” the counselor pressed. Ellie frowned. Rejected. “Like the woman who gave birth to me didn’t want me.

” But she’d said enough for the day. Emotions were battling their way to the surface, emotions she couldn’t afford to confront. “I need to go,” she said. Not bothering to wait for a response, she stormed out the door. TWO SATURDAY Stony Gap, Georgia The next morning, Ellie’s stomach churned as she sped toward the sheriff’s office. She should have laid off the vodka last night. Should have just left town. But a glutton for punishment, here she was on her way to watch Bryce Waters be sworn in as the new sheriff of Bluff County, the job Ellie had wanted all her life. Her phone buzzed as she turned onto Main Street. Looking down, she saw it was Angelica Gomez, from WRIX Channel 5 News.

Dammit, the reporter wouldn’t give up. Shaking her head in irritation, she let it roll to voicemail. Remembering that Angelica was lining up an interview with Hiram, Ellie listened to the message. She wanted to know if he had divulged any more secrets, most specifically if he’d had an accomplice. “Detective, I’m meeting with Hiram,” the reporter said in her message. “But everyone wants to hear your side of the story. Call me.” Ellie muttered a curse. Angelica wanted answers. The town wanted answers.

Ellie herself wanted answers. Who didn’t? Angelica’s voice echoed in her ears. Don’t you want to set the record straight? Help people understand? Quiet the gossip? Gossip fueled by Meddlin’ Maude and the busybodies in town who had nothing better to do than keep the rumor mill turning at the Beauty Barn while Carol Sue covered their gray with foils and teased the hell out of lifeless hair made worse by dye and lacquered spray. Her mother’s so-called friends, including Edwina the mayor’s wife and the ladies at the Garden Club, had abandoned her the moment the news had broken. They no longer cared if Vera could win prizes with her violets. She had been ostracized like a wilted flower from the garden extravaganza they sponsored every year. Ellie almost felt sorry for her. But Vera’s words reverberated in Ellie’s mind like a bad horror movie . I had to protect you because you were my daughter. I had to protect Hiram because he was my blood.

Then the whispers in the town: How could Ellie not know her brother was killing all those girls? Do you think she let her parents get away with covering for that monster? It’s her fault those little girls died. Is she stupid? Or evil like Hiram? A shudder coursed through Ellie. You can’t avoid the media forever, Angelica had said. So far, she had. The pain cut too damn deep. Hell yes, she wanted to quiet the talk in town. But opening up would only stoke the flames of suspicion. Spring rain slashed the windshield, promising that the dead brown leaves scattering the ground would make way for green, but Ellie felt dead inside herself. The sound of other cars around her and the presence of the news van made her stomach twist into a knot as she pulled into a parking spot in front of Town Hall. Magically, as if Bryce had ordered the downpour to stop for his inauguration, the rain ceased.

A commotion on the lawn jerked her back to the matter at hand, and she watched as locals flooded the square where Angelica and her cameraman had set up. Climbing from her Jeep, she inhaled the scent of rain and grass, which still remained brittle in the wake of the blizzard that had just raged along the east coast. The ground was slushy, the wind rolling off the mountain, a biting cold that had lingered as if the shadow of death hovered close by. Pulling her ski hat over her ears, Ellie burrowed in her jacket and stood on the periphery of the crowd, hoping to go unnoticed. Voices and excited whispers floated in the wind as Bryce exited the building onto the steps of city hall. Swallowing her bitterness over the fact that her father chose to endorse Bryce as his replacement instead of her, she quietly blended in with the spectators. Of course, Randall Reeves’ support could have backfired after the truth about Hiram was exposed, but Bryce managed, as always, to put a positive spin on the situation. As the new sheriff, he intended to clean up the town. Get justice. Protect the towns along the trail.

He was the hero. Maybe her father had been right. If the sheriff’s job was about politics and publicity, Bryce had been the better choice. She wanted to concentrate on justice and the law. Ever the charmer, Bryce saluted the people who’d gathered to watch him be sworn into office, sending cheers and applause across the lawn. Ellie forced herself to breathe. As Bryce was now sheriff over the entire county which encompassed Crooked Creek’s police department as well as Stony Gap’s, technically she worked for him. Shondra slipped up beside her, her scowl as disgusted as Ellie’s. “He’s always been a dick, but now he’ll lord that power over all of us.” It didn’t take a therapist to diagnose Bryce.

“Narcissist chauvinist,” Ellie muttered. “You know during the investigation into the Ghost case, he had me working small details at the festival in town. Since then it’s gotten worse. Last week, he assigned me to cover the garden show. Apparently, Lily was afraid someone would steal the prize roses.” Shondra rolled her eyes. “Then I was assigned to the local nursing home, where one of the patients was stealing the other patients’ afternoon ice-cream treats and cookies. All the while Bryce is sending the other deputies out on domestic calls and to investigate a drug ring he thinks has cropped up on the outskirts of town.” “That’s not fair,” Ellie said. “Tell me about it,” Shondra replied with a sigh.

“I threatened to file a complaint against him for gender bias if he didn’t start letting me work real cases.” A smile tugged at Ellie’s mouth. “How did that go over?” Shondra chuckled. “About like you’d expect. But hey, he finally sent me on a couple of domestic calls.” Ellie admired Shondra. The woman had grown up in an abusive home, and she was passionate about cracking down on domestic violence. Shondra nudged her arm, her smile fading. “How are you doing?” Ellie dug her hands into her pockets and shrugged. “Think I’m going to hike the trail for a few days.

” Just then, Bryce’s gaze traveled across the crowd, settling on Ellie. Some emotion she couldn’t quite compute flickered across his face, replaced with a wicked smile before he stepped behind the microphone beside his father, Mayor Waters. Anxiety pinched at Ellie’s gut. Bryce had something up his sleeve. That look… she knew it. He was going to make her life a living hell now he was in charge, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it—except quit and move away. Somewhere no one knew her. Somewhere she could escape. She’d been considering it for days now. She’d even pulled up a map, trying to pick a location.

But with national news airing the story of the murdered little girls, there was nowhere to hide.


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