Harper Ellis leaned back on her pillow, staring at the framed photo sitting atop her dresser. In the picture, Harper and her aunt were arm in arm, smiling, the joyous memory now frozen in time. It had been three years since Aunt Frida had died. Three years since her death had been ruled an accident. Three years … and everyone had moved on.
Everyone except Harper.
Harper had spent those years digging, looking for clues, asking questions, gathering every tidbit she could find to explain the unexplainable. She talked to anyone who would listen, trying to get them to see they were wrong, and she was right.
Aunt Frida’s death wasn’t an accident.
She’d been murdered.
Of this, Harper was certain.
At first, most of Aunt Frida’s friends and family indulged Harper’s theories, to a degree. They assumed she was grieving as they were. But as time passed, and Harper refused to let her suspicions go, they grew tired of hearing them. Soon after, her mother asked her not to speak of her aunt’s death again—to anyone—and suggested she put her ludicrous theories to rest.
Harper pulled the photo frame off the dresser and clutched it in her hands, reminiscing about the day the picture was taken. It was Harper’s fifteenth birthday. Friends and family gathered at the park to celebrate. They had a barbecue and took pictures under a gazebo her mother had decorated with balloons and twinkle lights.
It was one of the happiest days of Harper’s life.
It was also the last time she saw her Aunt Frida alive.
A soft rapping sound on the bedroom door snapped Harper back into the present moment. She returned the photo frame to its usual spot and said, “Come in.”
Her mother poked her head inside.
“Have you decided what you’re wearing to the wedding tomorrow?” she asked.
“It’s okay to dress in all black, right?”
Her mother didn’t seem too amused. “Not funny, Harper.”
“I’m kidding, Mom.”
“I know you are, honey. What are you up to tonight?”
“The usual. Hanging out with friends.”
“Don’t stay out too late. We need to leave here at nine thirty to get to the beach before the ceremony begins.”
“I’ll be ready. Don’t worry.”
Satisfied, her mother smiled and closed the door.
It was a rare occasion when Harper lied to her mother. But revealing her actual plans for the evening was out of the question. Tonight, she was testing her latest theory, and this time, she was ninety percent sure she had it right. Step one in the confirmation process required her to leave a note beneath the windshield of a certain person’s vehicle. A note that said:
Meet me at Shamel Park, at the gazebo. Tonight. Eight o’clock.
Don’t show, and I’ll tell everyone what really happened to Frida, and why.
A few months earlier, Harper had stumbled upon an important clue in her quest to prove Frida’s death wasn’t an accident. Now it was time to see if she was right. If she was, she needed to get him to say something to incriminate himself.
Given the fact no one had yet believed her, Harper knew she’d need help if she was to bring Frida’s killer to justice. Over the last three months, she’d been planning and saving, preparing for today.
Soon everyone would know the truth.
Soon, Aunt Frida’s killer would pay.
Unsure of how her suspect would take the news when he was confronted, Harper invested in a little protection. She pulled open her dresser drawer, riffling through it until she found the pocketknife she’d purchased. She stuck it into her purse and glanced at the mirror, pulling her blond, wavy hair back into a loose ponytail. She dabbed a bit of clear gloss over her lips and reached for her car keys.
It was 7:35 p.m.
Harper gave her mother a quick wave goodbye and headed out the door. She walked to the car and got inside, gripping the steering wheel as she inhaled a lungful of air. Her heart was beating fast—too fast. But there wasn’t much she could do about that.
During the drive, she rehearsed what she wanted to say in her mind. The words she would use had to be precise. They needed to provoke him, to make him talk, to prove whether he was the man she was after.
Harper pulled to a stop at the park’s entrance and exited the car. Tonight seemed warmer than usual. A quiet stillness filled the air, and there wasn’t much light, just a sliver of a moon peeking out from behind the clouds.
She scanned the area, didn’t see anyone. Perhaps he wasn’t here yet. She checked the time. Five minutes to spare, right on schedule.
Harper walked the grassy path to the gazebo and waited.
Five minutes passed.
At half past eight, it was obvious he wasn’t coming. She strolled back to the car, disappointed the night hadn’t gone as planned. She’d chosen to meet at the gazebo because of its significance.
A new plan was forming.
If he didn’t want to come to her, she’d go to him.
She knew where he lived.
Harper pulled the driver’s-side door open, jolting backward when a gray cat darted out from beneath a picnic table next to the gazebo. The cat turned toward her, narrowing his eyes at me, the trespasser.
You scared the bejesus out of me.
She huffed a slight laugh and got into the car. Slipping her seatbelt over her waist, she put the key into the ignition. A hand reached out from behind, then two—fingers thick and strong, as they wrapped around her neck. Squeezing.
Harper tried to scream and couldn’t.
She tried reaching for the pocketknife, but the tight, unrelenting grip of the seatbelt wouldn’t allow it.
She curled her fingers around his, desperate to peel them off her, but his grip was firm, unmoving. The man leaned forward, his hot breath filtering inside her ear as he uttered the last words she’d ever hear in this lifetime. “For the record, Harper … you were right.”