Caren Hahn

Hunt at Owl Creek: Chapter 1

Val’s stomach dropped in a sickening jolt as the ladder swayed backward. She gripped its sides with one hand and one forearm, trying not to drop the heavy drill. Her teeth clenched around the head of a screw, biting back a curse as she wished for her dad’s missing tool belt. She shifted her weight and the ladder settled again, her stomach settling with it.

Beneath her was the porch roof, its slope forcing her to lean the stepladder against the farmhouse at an angle, making the whole thing precarious. If she fell, the porch roof would catch her fall, and she probably wouldn’t roll off onto the ground fifteen feet below.


She really didn’t want to fall.

Val lifted the new decorative shutter and braced it in place with her shoulder while she readied the drill. This would have been so much easier with another pair of hands, and she wondered if she should have postponed the project until Joel could help. But it shouldn’t be this hard to replace a stupid shutter, and she didn’t want to be the needy girlfriend who always had one more favor to ask.


Is that what she was? She and Joel had talked to each other almost every day in the three weeks since the shooting in the pump house, but it seemed too soon to call him her boyfriend. She didn’t want to rush anything, especially since she’d just barely learned her husband was still alive.

The thought stoked a low-level rage that flared whenever she thought of Jordan. Faking his own death to escape prosecution hadn’t just turned her life inside out, it had given her false permission to move on. When she’d come back to Owl Creek, she’d been working to put Jordan behind her, thinking he was dead. But now he’d returned and upended her life again.

The sun was setting over the western hills, the temperature dropping with it. While she worked, the squeak of trampoline springs kept rhythmic time and served as a beacon to tell Val where Abby was. For all the acres of property surrounding them, she still didn’t feel comfortable letting Abby leave the yard after everything that had happened that summer.

Val slipped the screw from her mouth and rested the tip on the predrilled hole.

Almost there…

She pushed against the drill and pulled the trigger slowly. It whined as the screw turned, but there wasn’t enough force for the screw to bite the wood. Val pushed harder.

With a lurching sensation, the ladder slipped under her, and she slid with it, sending the screw flipping into the air. Her arm scraped against the window trim as she scrabbled for a handhold, fumbling to a stop against the porch roof with her knees—and ego—bruised.

Val swore and picked herself up. The asphalt shingles were hot from the late August sun, chafing like sandpaper against her bare knees. She heaved the ladder against the side of the house again and shook it, making doubly sure that it was stable.

It had seemed like such an important thing to replace the broken shutter. But that meant replacing all four so they matched, and she’d stripped out three of the rusted screws holding the shutters in place. Now she had no idea how she was going to remove them to make room for the new ones. Crowbar? Pliers? This small project was turning into a big headache, making her wonder if a potential buyer would have even noticed the broken shutter in the first place.

All at once, Val realized the squeak of the trampoline had ceased. She stepped back to the edge of the porch to see around the corner of the house.

Abby was standing on the trampoline, her little body barely making it sag in the center. She wasn’t jumping. Instead, she was standing still, watching toward the horizon.

“Abby? What’s up?” Val called.

Abby pointed. “There’s somebody out there. Do you see?”

Val shielded her eyes against the golden light glittering over the fallow field.


“They’re by the trees. Look.”

Val frowned and reached for her phone as she climbed over the window ledge. It scraped the tender skin inside her thigh, but she barely noticed.

Joel didn’t answer, but he sent a text a few seconds later.

Sorry, can’t talk. Working.

Val sighed. She sent a thumbs up.

She couldn’t expect Joel to run out to her place every time she had a couple of trespassers. Ever since Eliza Bellingham’s remains had been found in the abandoned well, kids from town had occasionally tried to break into the pump house. Joel had even caught a couple with unlit fireworks, a completely insane idea considering the forest fires that had ravaged the area during the peak of summer. Apparently the social life in Owl Creek hadn’t improved in the decade since she’d been a teen.

Abby was standing on the porch when Val exited the house, looking toward the dirt road that led to the pump house.

“Go inside and get in your pajamas,” Val said, keeping her tone light. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“What if it’s that man?”Abby’s voice was tinged with fear. “What if he came back?”

Her face was round with the softness of childhood, and her green eyes almost glowed in the warm light. Her question broke Val’s heart.

“He won’t ever come back. That man is long gone. It’s probably just a couple of kids. We’re safe, I promise.”

Val didn’t mention that the intruder Abby had seen was now dead, and their friend Carter had killed him. She’d managed to keep those details from her, as well as what had really happened to Carter. It had been hard enough to explain to Abby that her father was still alive but wasn’t going to come live with them because he had done something very bad. Telling her that Joel had shot Carter to save Val would have been too much.

It was amazing how much you could dismiss by calling something a very sad accident.

But Val hadn’t been able to return to the pump house since. Now, with phone in hand and heart beating faster than it should at a brisk walking pace, she made her way to the dirt road.

She tried not to think of that day, but it was hard not to. It’s where her mind went whenever she was awake at night listening to the sounds of the old farmhouse settling. It was all she could see if she had to go outside in the dark alone.

With the nights getting longer, she didn’t know how she was going to make it through winter.

The sun slipped behind the hills as she approached the pump house. Joel had boarded up the broken window and installed a new padlock on the door, and so far none of the trespassers had succeeded in breaking in. A clanging sound accompanied a loud thump as Val rounded the corner of the pump house.

Two kids, looking to be in their early teens, were standing at the door. One was striking the new padlock with a big rock and cried out as he smashed his fingers.

If Val hadn’t been so annoyed, she would have laughed. Instead, she planted her feet and folded her arms.

“It’s harder than it looks in the movies, isn’t it?”

They whirled, eyes wide and flooded with guilt.

“So, boys, am I calling the cops to report you for trespassing? Or are you going to run home and tell your friends never to come back here?”

In answer, the one without a rock took off running. The other—a freckled kid with a mullet— watched him go helplessly, cradling the heavy rock like he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“Looks like your friend chose for you. Better go before I change my mind and call the cops anyway.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.” His face was red with shame, and Val hoped he was the kind of kid who would learn from his embarrassment.

She watched as he followed his friend across the ombre fields. Shadows were growing long, and the whole valley was nearly consumed by twilight as daylight leached out of the sky like a drained sponge wrung out to dry.

A cool breeze sent a chill up her neck, and Val suddenly realized she was alone in this place of shadows and nightmares.

Hugging herself, she set off up at the road at a trot, leaving the pump house behind.

* * *

Barry Krenshaw vomited on the asphalt next to the Wallace County Sheriff Yukon, splattering brown chunks on the white paint. Joel jumped back just in time.

Larry swore. “Come on, Barry! Couldn’t you have done it in the bushes?”

Barry groaned, and Joel was distinctly grateful he’d parked his Charger on the street.

“All right. Anyone else here capable of telling us what happened?” Larry asked the small group gathered at the edge of the parking lot.

They were at the Moon Apartments, a small single-story complex that sat behind the Owl Creek library. The two buildings sat in an L shape and had nine side-by-side units between them. Curious neighbors gathered on stoops and lined the edge of the gravel lot.

Travis Krenshaw, Barry’s brother, sat on the front step of apartment number three.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Travis bellowed. “She ran over my foot! They all saw it!”

He gestured toward his girlfriend, Suzie, who stood nearby, smoking angrily.

“It was an accident,” Suzie argued back. “Ya’ll know it weren’t on purpose. He was pounding on my door, and I was trying to back out. I can’t help it if he got his foot in the way.”

Larry looked at Joel and raised his eyebrows in a question. Which one do you want?

“Suzie, let’s come talk over here,” Joel said, leading her away from the onlookers.

Suzie stalked after him to stand under a large cedar on the other side of the dirt parking lot.

“Barry says you were angry at Travis,” Joel began. “Can you tell me why?”

“Barry is a lying drunk. Look at ‘im. Why would you listen to anything he says?” She gestured with her cigarette toward Barry, who was now sitting on the ground with his head between his knees.

She had a point.

“Why was Travis pounding on your car door?”

Suzie shrugged. “No reason.”

“Suzie, do we really have to do this? Neighbors said you two had been going at it for an hour. What were you arguing about?”

“It wasn’t an argument. They’re blowing smoke out their butts.” She exhaled smoke as she said it. Her skin was tanned and wrinkled like leather, her collarbones and shoulders bony. Everything about her was tough, and she hardened more each time Joel questioned her.

This was the third time this week.

“So you’re telling me that Travis starts pounding on your car window while you’re backing out, and you don’t think to stop and find out what’s going on?”

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I was in a hurry; he got in my way. But I didn’t mean to run over him.”

“You weren’t angry at him?”


“Because we’re going to have to bring both of you in. It’s standard procedure when someone’s injured in a domestic violence incident. And I—”

“Domestic violence!” Spittle flew from her lips. “This ain’t domestic violence! It was an accident, and if you can’t tell the difference, I’m wondering if your badge is plastic, Detective.”

Joel ignored her outburst. “If there was anything else going on between you, now would be a good time to tell me. You’re sure this doesn’t have anything to do with where Travis was on Monday night?”

“I’m done talking about that,” she snapped. “He didn’t have nothin’ to do with that girl. He was with me.”

A siren and flashing lights announced an approaching ambulance. As it slowed to turn into the parking lot, Suzie swore.

“Who called the ambulance? We don’t got that kind of money.” She walked away from Joel, her bony shoulders rounded as if she were headed into battle.

So far she’d stuck to her story that Travis had been with her the night a teenage girl had been assaulted in the nearby park. Travis’s record and the girl’s description of her assailant made him the prime suspect, but Suzie had sworn they were together that night.

Now neighbors reported an angry fight which ended in Suzie running over Travis’s foot. It sounded like vengeance to Joel.

In the aftermath of Eliza Bellingham’s body being discovered seven years after the teen disappeared, the whole community was on edge. No one was feeling it more than the deputies assigned to Owl Creek. Peter Moyer had filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, claiming they’d contributed to his son’s death by mishandling the investigation into Eliza’s disappearance. And with the most recent attack—even though the girl had escaped without any injuries—the pressure was on to find the perpetrator. But without direct evidence, and with Suzie providing Travis an alibi, their hands were tied.

Joel’s personal phone buzzed with a text, but he ignored it. He would much rather be at Val’s on a Friday night than at the Moon Apartments smelling vomit and sweat and cigarette smoke in the late summer evening. Paramedics were inspecting Travis’s foot while Larry stood nearby, handcuffs in hand. Suzie stood over Barry, gesturing angrily. Barry moaned, drawing the attention of another paramedic.

What a mess.

Joel went to his car to get his own cuffs. When Suzie saw him approaching, she dropped her cigarette and ground it into the dirt.

“Oh I see how it is. You can’t get Travis, so you’re going to arrest me on some trumped up charge hoping I’ll turn on him.”

“Come on, Suzie, let’s go.”

“Feed my dog, will ya, Barry?” Suzie said, placing her hands out, palms up.

Residents from the other building were coming out now. The warmth of the day had faded quickly with the setting sun, bringing a promise of fall and cooler temperatures. One teenager even wore a sweatshirt.

As Joel escorted Suzie to his car, a loud barking laugh drew Joel’s attention to the far end of the building. He knew that laugh.

Mason Pearson was a couple of years younger than Joel, but Joel remembered him well. He’d never liked him much in high school. Mason had been small and wiry then but had made up for it with a chip on his shoulder to rival a bully twice his size. Quick to anger, he didn’t seem to have mellowed out much over the years, judging by the scuffle he’d started at the alumni softball game over the Fourth of July.

Joel and a few others had intervened, and Mason had taken a swing at him, spitting out a stream of racial slurs at the same time.

Now he stood near a woman Joel didn’t recognize, and Joel’s gaze lingered as he took her in.

She was watching from her porch, the elevated view making her stand out from the rest. But it was more than that. Her appearance showed an attention to personal hygiene he wasn’t used to seeing from the typical Moon Apartment residents. Nor did she share the same aura of desperation.


Nothing caught his attention like something that didn’t fit.

Joel walked over to Barry and crouched down, trying to gauge if he would get anything useful out of him. His shirt stank of puke.

“What do you think?” Joel asked the paramedic who was checking Barry’s pulse against his watch.

“I think he’s not going to remember much tomorrow. If you’ve got any questions for him, better ask him now. But he’s all right.” Dropping Barry’s wrist, he said, “Get some rest, and make sure you stay hydrated. And stay off the bottle, all right?”

Barry waved a hand. “Sure, sure. Thanks, brother.”

“Barry, can you tell me what Suzie and Travis were arguing about?” Joel asked. “You were there, right?”

“I dunno. I try not to get involved when they get going.”

“Do they fight a lot?”

Barry made a slurping noise as if he’d forgotten how to swallow. “Sure. I been tellin’ Travis it ain’t worth it, but he don’t listen.”

“What’s not worth it?”

“Suzie. Livin’ with her and all that. But he says he can’t leave her.”

Joel glanced up to where Travis was being loaded in the ambulance on a gurney. “He can’t leave her? Or he won’t?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Why not?”

“She won’t let him.”

“What does that mean? Has she threatened him?”

Barry threw back his head and cackled. “She’s a spitfire but I doubt she weighs a buck-oh-five soaking wet. Could you see Travis being scared of her?”

“Then what do you mean she won’t let him leave? How is she making him stay with her?”

“D’you think he’ll be able to use that foot again? I hope he won’t be a cripple. Travis should sue her for damages.” His words slurred together. “I’m gonna go home now.”

He gathered his feet under him and pushed himself up to stand. Joel straightened, stretching his cramped muscles, and Larry joined him. Together they watched Barry stagger to the second apartment unit. People moved out of the way to let him pass.

“Do you want me to call Brian to go to the hospital?” Larry asked.

“I’ll go after I take Suzie in. Travis won’t be going anywhere for a while.“

“Especially on that foot. I swear the thing’s already doubled in size. It’ll be a good long night in the ER. Lucky you,” Larry added with a grin. He was older than Joel by about fifteen years, and Joel appreciated his easy-going attitude that took everything in stride.

Joel’s phone buzzed again as he walked to his car. He checked it quickly, feeling a little thrill at seeing Val’s name.

I just chased off a couple of kids trying to break into the pump house without calling 911. You’re welcome. I expect my badge when I see you tomorrow.

He thumbed a quick answer.

First you have to stop calling it a badge.

Right! Shield. Not sure why you cops can’t do the decent thing and use the same terms the rest of us use.

Because you’re wrong.

Harsh! Does the arrogance come with the shield?

She included a wink emoji and Joel smiled to himself before slipping the phone back in his pocket.

Suzie glared at him from the back seat, her mouth moving in a silent tirade.

Larry was right. It was going to be a long night.

* * *

A new threat is coming to Owl Creek...Find it on Amazon today!

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