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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 17

ONE GOOD TURN (GRANT)

When you’ve been a cop as long as I have, you learn to trust one thing.

If something smells bad, it’s probably rotten.

Right now, this whole situation stinks to high heaven.

The clearing in the woods on the west side of town, just on the far edge of the tiny central shopping district, is a riot of color.

The violent yellow-orange of October leaves.

The retina-burning contrast of red and blue patrol lights flashing, clashing with the red and orange of the whirling ambulance flashers.

The black-and-white patrol cars.

The vibrant green of the last few pine needles slowly turning dull for winter.

Then there’s the blaring red of that man’s blood, so coppery crimson it’s loud.

It spills down his chin, turning muddy brown as the splatters left behind soak into the disturbed earth.

Also, the sickening paleness of those bleached bones.

The skull is just a dome protruding from the dirt. One empty socket partly exposed, staring at me like it’s waiting for me to give it a name.

Now I get why some folks say the dead can be more demanding than the living.

God-fucking-dammit.

Every time I think I’ve learned just how fucked up the secrets in this town are, something darker turns up.

Someone else.

This deep instinct inside me twitches, aching to know, but also afraid to find out who.

I might not like knowing who those bones belong to.

Still, it’s part of the job.

Tearing my gaze away from the unmarked grave, I refocus on the paramedics carrying that man to the back of Redhaven’s lone ambulance. They push the stretcher up the small slope of hill to the highway visible in snatches just past the woods.

My crew stalk through the scene like scavengers, staking out the clearing with police tape, cordoning it off in yellow lines that add another garish splash of color to this unholy ground.

One of the EMTs breaks away, giving the man one last troubled look before jogging over with her brown ponytail bouncing.

“Captain Faircross?” she says breathlessly. “Hey, I’ll get you a full medical workup for your police report once we’ve had a good look at him at the medical center, but…”

“But?” I prompt.

“Right now, it’s looking like attempted suicide,” she says reluctantly. “From taking his vitals, he’s going into organ failure. Vomiting blood was a classic sign. Some sort of toxic substance, I bet. It’s possible he tried to kill himself with rat poison, antifreeze—there are a ton of household cleaners that could do the trick. Even overdosing on some OTC meds. Actually, I’d put my odds on that, this dude wandering off under the influence. Anyway, once we run toxicology, I’ll have a better idea for you.”

“Thank you,” I grind out. That’s the only thing I can manage when my mind’s still stuck on her very first words.

Attempted suicide.

Second suicide in less than a month.

Don’t fucking tell me it’s not connected to the Arrendells.

No matter what Montero said—no matter what fucking front they put up, parading their staff in front of me—that uniform doesn’t lie.

It’s the same suit every other butler there wears.

They’re connected, somehow.

Cora Lafayette’s death and this strange man’s attempt.

They can’t not be.

No way in hell.

The ambulance starts its siren and the EMT gives me an expectant look.

I nod at the vehicle.

“Go on. I’ll wait for y’all to call. Gonna work the crime scene over in the meantime.”

She stares at those bones significantly, then snaps off a sharp nod before jogging back through the trees. I watch her until she vaults over the highway guardrail up the slope and vanishes into the back of the ambulance. The door barely slams shut before the thing goes rocketing off toward the outskirts of town, screaming like a banshee the whole way.

Leaving just me.

My team.

Those bones.

Plus, the slim figure huddled in the back seat of my patrol car, leaning against the window and watching Micah, Henri, and Lucas move around the crime scene efficiently. My men hold up well, putting down evidence markers and noting points of interest, all the places that could possibly hide other graves.

Right now, nothing’s off-limits as far as possibilities go.

If anything, this shit promises to be weirder than anyone would think.

As I step closer to the squad car, Ophelia turns her head toward me, her green eyes haunted in the shadows.

I rip the rear driver’s side door open and prop my arm on the roof, leaning in.

“Hey. How’re you holding up?”

“Still pretty shaken up, honestly.” She smiles weakly. She’s wearing my uniform jacket again—I have got to talk this woman into buying a proper winter coat—and she pulls it around herself tighter, huddling under it like it’s an emergency blanket. “Think you could drop Captain Faircross long enough to be just Grant? I wouldn’t mind a hug.”

“I can do both, if you don’t mind talking a little.” I ease into the back seat and stretch one arm along the back.

In seconds, I’ve got a blonde burr against my side, huddling against me and making herself small.

She feels so small it worries me as I pull her closer.

I can feel her trembling under my arm.

Fuck, I hate that her homecoming has been nothing but one ugly shock after the next.

“You’re safe,” I whisper, resting my chin on top of her head, holding her tight. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think that guy was trying to hurt you. Medic said it’s looking like an attempted suicide.”

“Suicide?” Ophelia inhales sharply. “Then why…?”

“He might’ve had second thoughts. Or he might’ve been hopped up on something that messed with his brain. Maybe he went looking for help and tripped over you.”

“God. And it just happened to be me? After he’s been following me around town,” she points out skeptically. “What else? What are you not saying, Grant?”

I snort loudly.

“You know, you’re the only person who can read me like that, and some days, I swear…” I trail off into a grunt. “I just got a funny feeling, Philia. Those bones, that man, another suicide connected to the fucking Arrendells. The maid who hung herself weeks ago, and now this guy turns up half spun out of his mind, wearing their uniform.”

She’s silent for a terrible minute, her head resting on my shoulder and her gaze trained outward thoughtfully.

“Aokigahara,” she murmurs.

“A-oki-huh? You speaking Japanese now?”

“Yeah. I read about it in the news once after this YouTuber caused a huge scandal by being disrespectful. It’s this place in Japan called the Suicide Forest,” she says softly. “So many people go there to end it all that the rangers can’t keep up with all the bodies, even though they try to keep people out. They even try to talk people out of doing something awful. Some people say it’s just a trend, but others think there’s something dark out there that convinces people to kill themselves there. Sorry. I know what I sound like. I just can’t help thinking…”

She trails off, but her head turns, gazing at the big rise over the town. The one where that big house squats like some terrible demon of bleached bone with its windows gleaming like orange demon eyes.

If anywhere could be haunted enough to drive people to suicide just from stepping foot on its grounds, it’s there.

The Arrendell mansion.

“But you don’t think it’s suicide at all, do you?” she finishes.

“Don’t know yet,” I say. “I’ve got some odd hunches. Something itching at the back of my head, y’know? But I need to think. Sort things out. Wait for toxicology.”

And possibly an autopsy, if our mystery man doesn’t make it.

“I feel a little weird myself.” Ophelia’s eyes gravitate to the spot where Micah’s crouching next to the unearthed bones, delicately sweeping the dirt away with gloved fingers. “Who do you think that is, Grant?”

I don’t answer.

The question hangs deathly heavy between us.

I think we’re both wondering the same thing, even if the possibility’s mighty slim.

So many people have disappeared in Redhaven over the years.

Residents.

Random hikers.

Punk-ass kids who took their mischief too far and wound up in real trouble.

Sometimes, we find folks in the woods looking kind of like that suicide forest she talked about. People get lost, wander off the paths, disappear into some little niche where nobody can find them.

It’s dense as hell out here beyond town. You could walk three feet and not even notice them there, frozen to death or torn up by coyotes or cougars. The odds that it’s Ethan are slim.

Even so, I still get that feeling.

“Hey,” I say. “You wanna run what happened by me again? A little more detail this time.”

“I kind of stumbled over that when I was screaming into the phone, huh?” Ophelia smiles painfully. “There’s not that much more to say, honestly. I was in the back storage room at the shop, tidying up, when I heard the bell over the door. I went out and he was just standing there, pale and reeling, bleeding from the mouth. He didn’t say anything. He just turned and ran, taking off between the buildings. Crazy stamina for a man with internal bleeding, but…” She stops. When she speaks again, her voice is hushed, her eyes lidding over. “I guess I felt like he was leading me somewhere. Into the woods, then here. I bet he’s the one who dug up those bones. I don’t know, maybe he wanted it this way. Maybe he wanted me to—”

“He wanted you to see them,” I finish softly.

“Yeah.”

“Only question is why?”

“No clue.” Ophelia shakes her head. “But I think you’re asking the same questions I am, right now.”

Damn right.

Like how long that man’s been working up at the manor and who he is. It’s definitely easy to find out when the Arrendell house runs parallel to Redhaven like its own little insular world.

Folks can spend years working up there without anyone in town catching hide nor hair of them.

We don’t know if he was around ten, fifteen years ago.

Or whether or not he knows shit about people who disappeared back then.

What secrets has he been sitting on?

Did he know about Ulysses and the hillfolk?

About what the rest of that vicious clan get up to?

And who would stage a suicide—hell, maybe two suicides—to keep those secrets quiet?

I don’t like it.

I like it even less that Ophelia seems to be at the center of it. All because this man’s fixated on her for some bizarre reason—and I doubt that’s coincidence.

Redhaven is a place where coincidence goes to die.

Just have to hope like hell he wakes up and starts talking soon.

I’ve got some important fucking questions, all right.

Like what I can do to keep Ophelia safe, besides staying by her side as much as possible. I have to make sure the Arrendells don’t get a single step closer to her.

After all, it’s not that house that brings misfortune.

It’s not that house that brings death.

If there’s a stain on this town, it’s them.

It’s in their blood.

And I damn sure won’t let it consume the woman I love.


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