EVER PRESENT DANGER
Phantom Hollow Series #1
“Do not be misled: bad company corrupts good character.”
—1 Corinthians 15:33
Ivy Griffith stood beside her pink-and-silver snowmobile, her breath turning to vapor in the late afternoon chill, her gaze set on the giant cottonwood tree that marked the secret grave like a towering headstone. She knew that even after the spring runoff came rushing down the mountain, and the Phantom River became like a torrent of baptismal whitewater lifting the impurities and washing them away, the horrible deed that was done here would not be cleansed. Not then. Not ever.
She blinked to clear her eyes and willed away the emotion, the same unanswerable question running through her mind: What if Joe Hadley wasn’t dead when they buried him? What if his heart was still beating and they couldn’t hear it—or didn’t want to? Never being allowed to know the answer seemed a fitting punishment for a spectator guilty of gross indifference.
She moved closer to the giant cottonwood, the snow crunching under her boots, the ears of her memory alive with the sound of flesh hitting flesh and then Joe struggling to breathe. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t tried to stop Pete from choking him, only that she’d been smoking pot spiked with angel dust and nothing seemed real.
Sometimes she obsessed about how horrible it must be for Mr. and Mrs. Hadley to speculate about the ways their son might have died—or if he was still alive and suffering at the hands of some pervert. She had thought about typing a letter and sending it to them anonymously, telling them that Joe was dead and hadn’t suffered long. But the fear of what would happen if the letter were traced back to her was greater than her desire to ease their anguish.
Her heart felt blacker than the blackest night, as if the light inside her had gone out. If only she had never met Pete Barton! It was bad enough that she had given away her virginity and had experimented with drugs, but it felt as though she had sold her soul when she made a pact with Pete and the others never to speak of Joe’s demise.
That agreement stood between her and God, but it was the only thing keeping her and Pete together. He kept reminding her over and over that she was an accessory to the killing and that telling the police would ruin not only her life and his, but also her parents’. Then she’d have no one, except the inmates at some dank and dreary women’s prison.
A noise broke the stillness, and Ivy realized a car was coming. She turned around, her pulse racing, and saw a white jeep Cherokee outfitted with chains moving in her direction on the snow-packed road. She forced a friendly smile and waved at the driver, relieved when he nodded and drove past. She stood frozen until the jeep’s taillights disappeared over the hill and the only sound was the wind whistling through the bare aspens.
Why was she so skittish? It’s not as though her being seen out here would raise suspicion. As far as anyone was concerned, she was just Elam and Carolyn’s daughter out for a ride on her snowmobile.
She turned back around, her eyes drawn like a magnet to the secret grave, and wondered for the umpteenth time how different things might have been had she simply shouted at the boys to stop hitting Joe before it went too far.
Ivy breathed in slowly and then let it out. In a few months, she and Pete and the others would be parting ways and going off to college, beginning a new chapter in their lives and leaving that gray January afternoon on the pages of the past.
She walked back to the snowmobile, her burden heavier than when she came, thinking Joe Hadley was the lucky one. At least his suffering was over.
Brandon Jones stood at the scenic overlook on Tanner’s Ridge, his gloved hands wrapped around a cup of hot coffee, his eyes drinking in the jagged San Juan Mountains that rose high above the valley floor and surrounded Phantom Hollow like a pure white fortress.
Directly below he spotted the log buildings at Three Peaks Christian Camp and Conference Center. “Honey, look. There’s our house. To the right of the dining hall. See it?”
Kelsey Jones nodded. “Looks small from up here.”
“It still hasn’t hit me that I’m camp director and actually get paid to do what I love doing—plus have access to all this natural beauty. There’s no way we’d be here if you hadn’t gone to college with Jake Compton.”
“It never hurts to have a connection, but Jake hired you because you’re exactly what he was looking for in spite of the fact that he considered me a ball and chain.”
“Oh, come on, Kel. He never said that.”
“No, but Jake never thought I would adjust to the idiosyncrasies of a small town. I don’t deny that moving here was a culture shock after Raleigh, but now I love living in Jacob’s Ear…What are you grinning about?”
“Jacob’s Ear sounds more like an ailment than a town.” Brandon rested his elbows on the railing and looked out beyond the camp at the mining town-turned-tourist-attraction that still bore the distinctive character of the gold rush days. “Too bad they didn’t give it a name like Gold Town or Jacob’s Mine.”
“Oh, I think Jacob’s Ear is much more intriguing. Besides, the tourists get a kick out of the legend.”
“Which the chamber of commerce is more than happy to capitalize on.”
“And why not? Maybe the widow Thompson really did find Jacob Tanner’s ear on the back porch—not that I believe some nineteenth-century Bigfoot came out of the woods and devoured him. But a little folklore is more intriguing than saying a bear got him.”
Brandon nudged her with his elbow. “And you don’t think naming a town after a body part is weird?”
“They didn’t exactly name it that. It just sort of…stuck.” Kelsey smiled and then burst into laughter. “Okay, it’s weird. Unique, but definitely weird.”
“And hard to say with a straight face.”
“At least we’ll be smiling a lot.”
Brandon put his arm around her and pulled her close. “I’ve already got plenty to smile about, Mrs. Jones. The four months since we got married have been the happiest of my life. And living here in Colorado…well, it’s just a blessing on top of a blessing.”
“It’s wonderful seeing you excited about your job, and I’m hooked on the mountains. I could spend all day up here.”
“Me, too, but not if I’m going to get started on those changes to the Three Peaks website. Since you’re not scheduled to work today, why don’t you meet me for lunch at the dining hall?”
“I’d love to, but I doubt I’ll be back from town in time.”
Brandon put his hand on his heart. “I’m crushed. What could be more important than a romantic buffet lunch with your husband and seventy-five conference attendees?”
Kelsey laughed. “How about if I make us a romantic dinner for two? I need to run errands and get the grocery shopping done before we get all that spring snow they’re predicting tonight. And if I’m going to be snowbound, I want to have everything I need to do some baking.”
“I have a feeling I’m not going to get all these homemade goodies when summer rolls around.”
Kelsey poked his chest with her finger. “According to Jake, you’re going to be too busy to care. I’d better spoil you now while I have the chance.”
Carolyn Griffith put the last of the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and turned it on just as the phone rang.
“Mom, don’t faint…it’s me.”
Carolyn gripped the phone with one hand and groped behind her for the kitchen chair and eased into it.
“Is this is a bad time?” Ivy Griffith said.
“No, I—I just wasn’t expecting it to be you.” I don’t even recognize your voice. You sound so grown up. “How are you?”
“Okay. How’s Rusty? Did he ever marry Jacqueline?”
“Yes, they’re living in Albuquerque and have two little girls. Tia’s three and Josie’s two. Rusty just started his own veterinary practice.”
“That’s really great. How are you and Dad?”
Feeling much older than we are. “We miss you, Ivy.”
There was a long, agonizing stretch of dead air. Carolyn wondered why, after all the years of longing to talk to her daughter, she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I miss you, too…” Ivy’s voice cracked, and she paused for several seconds. “Do you think maybe I could…come home?”
“You mean to stay?”
“If you don’t want to see me, just say so. I’ll understand.”
“No, it’s okay! We definitely want to see you. Just give me a minute to let my heart catch up. This is so unexpected.”
“I know, and I’m sorry for calling out of the blue like this, but I just lost another roommate. Denver’s too expensive. I need to live someplace where I don’t have to rely on another person for half the rent.”
Carolyn wondered if the roommate Ivy had lost was her boyfriend but decided not to ask.
“Actually, Mom, it’s more than that. I just need to be with family. I can’t make up for all the years I stayed away, but I want to make things right.”
“When do you want to come?”
“I have friends who’re going skiing at Purgatory day after tomorrow. We can hitch a ride with them.”
We? Carolyn felt the muscles tighten in her shoulders. “Someone’s coming with you?”
“Would it be okay? Just till I find a job and get my own place?”
“Ivy, your father and I would welcome your coming home. But we need you to be up front with us about what’s going on. No more secrets. No more game playing.”
“I’ll be bringing a very nice lady named Lucia. And a little boy named Montana.”
“Are they hiding from someone?”
“No. They’re the only family I’ve had for a long time.”
“I see. Is Lucia your partner? Are you…?”
“Mom, she’s seventy years old. It’s not like that. I just want you to meet her.”
“Is the little boy her grandson?”
Carolyn sighed. “Ivy, please. For once in your life, just say what you mean.”
“Montana’s mine…he’s my son.”
Brandon Jones brushed the snow off his down jacket and stomped his feet on the mat, then went inside the dining hall of Three Peaks Christian Camp and Conference Center and spotted Jake Compton at a table by the windows.
“Thanks for meeting me for lunch,” Jake said. “How’re the website changes coming?”
“Great. I should be done before the weekend.” Brandon laid his coat across the back of a chair and sat at the table. “So what’s up?”
“Ivy Griffith is coming home Saturday.”
Brandon stared at Jake for a few moments and let the words sink in. “How do you know?”
“Carolyn stopped by the administrative office this morning and told me. She asked me to fill everyone in.”
Brandon threw back his head and felt a smile stretch his cheeks. “Praise God! We shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what the staff’s been praying for.”
“Well, there’s another huge surprise: Ivy’s got a seven-year-old son.”
“Whoa. Carolyn and Elam never mentioned him.”
Jake’s eyes grew wide. “Because they didn’t know. They’re not sure what to expect either. Ivy’s been in and out of drug rehab, but swears she was clean during the pregnancy. She says a lady named Lucia has helped her with the boy all these years. Apparently Lucia’s coming, too.”
Brandon looked out the window and spotted the Griffiths’ log house at the base of the mountain covered in a blanket of new snow. “So Ivy, her son, and this woman are all going to stay at Carolyn and Elam’s?”
“I got that impression. They’ve got a ton of room.”
“Is Ivy moving here?”
“Carolyn says Ivy rarely gives her a straight answer but mentioned she wants to find her own place.”
“So is Ivy supporting her son and this woman?”
“I guess so. Carolyn won’t say it, but she has to be afraid that she and Elam will end up supporting all three of them. Most jobs in Jacob’s Ear are seasonal.”
“I doubt money’s an issue, Jake. Elam’s made more dollars on his real estate investments than there are people in the state.”
“That’s true. I suppose if Ivy started to infringe on their space, he and Carolyn could buy her a house of her own.”
Brandon glanced out the window again at the Griffiths’ house and noticed smoke snaking out of the chimney. “Maybe all she really wants is to come home to the familiar—you know, find her roots again.”
“Then she’s going to be sorely disappointed.”
“Why do you say that?”
“For one thing, Three Peaks is sitting on the open range where she and her brother used to ride horses. This land was the Griffiths’ homestead, and ten years ago their house was the only thing out here.”
“I didn’t know that. So the camp property belonged to them?”
Jake nodded. “Still does. This and half of Tanner County. After their son Rusty was out on his own, they decided to invest money in a camp and conference center and had it built just a couple hundred yards from their house. The Griffiths wanted a sense of community and liked the ministry aspect. But they never had the desire to be involved in the day-to-day operation, which is why they hired me to be the administrator. Ivy doesn’t know any of this.”
“Maybe it won’t matter that much to her. At least the house is still there. Do you know if Elam and Carolyn ever heard from her during the years she was gone?”
“A few times. I know that when she dropped out of college they arranged for her to go through drug rehab—and then again several years ago. But she’s never been back to Jacob’s Ear since she left for college.”
Brandon turned his eyes on the embers in the huge rock fireplace that made up one wall of the dining hall. “Can you imagine dropping out of your family at eighteen and showing up again at twenty-eight?”
“Not really. But I’ve seen firsthand how deeply Ivy’s absence has affected Elam and Carolyn. I’m sure they’re glad she’s coming home. But they’ve also stuffed a lot of hurt and anger over the years. At some point, all that’s going to have to be dealt with.”
“Well, I know one thing: they can count on the support of the staff here.”
“Definitely.” Jake pushed back his chair. “Okay, you’re up to speed. Let’s go get in that buffet line while the food’s still hot.”