Chapter One

They found her 'neath the dogwood tree
a million flow'rs, a sight to see
Lord, if I must pass
I have to ask
Let me die by a dogwood tree

The metallic drone of the cicadas was a constant, like gravity, and it slid into the background of her focus that night. Every night. The brutal heat of the day had broken with the sun's passing, leaving a gently embracing, humid warmth. Alabama summers were an abusive spouse; beating down viciously all day, only to shift into a cloying, needy calm when darkness fell. At least the nights were tolerable, at least they allowed her to run.

The rhythmic, light taps of her white sneakers against the red dirt path provided a quiet drumbeat to the violin of the cicadas. Music that the lightning bugs slowly danced to. This was her reprieve, the closest she could get to nirvana. She felt a smile slide across her flushed face as she fled further into the woods. This place was beautiful in its own wild way.

The trees were immense here. Tall live oaks, bright twisting dogwoods, straight-backed cypress, wise old magnolias; all of them intermingled as they reached skyward, hiding the stars. Their trunks and branches dripped with kudzu and trailing, limp Spanish moss. The ground was carpeted thickly with crackling, old leaves between patches of prickling, thorny underbrush. One step off the beaten path would quickly become a mistake; these woods were not yet mowed and clipped into submission by humanity. One lonely strip of red dirt was all that had been claimed away from nature here, and even it belonged as much to the deer as it did to the few people who used it.

Brooke made her steady way along that winding path, grinning at her own inside joke. A Brooke runs through the woods. She could smell the sweet scent of wildflowers, honeysuckle and wisteria and a hundred others trying their best to hide the sickly scent of rotting wood and damp moss. Her heart thrummed in her chest, and her muscles burned as her feet flew through the night. Her pace was steady as a time-piece as she made her way down the familiar trail. Tonight was different, though. Her pounding heart was lighter, her spirits higher. Tonight was special.

More special than she'd realized. Her eyes caught something new ahead, and she slowed down to inspect. It couldn't be. She'd run this trail a thousand times, and it had always been just the same. She quirked a sweaty eyebrow at what lay before her, wondering how she'd missed it before. A fork in the road. The path distinctly split in two here, one side bending off to the left the same as ever, but a new track now carried on directly forward. It wasn't new, though. No, it looked just as worn in as the other. Brooke had always veered left with the path, and she swore to herself that she'd have seen another option.

Yet, undeniably there were two paths ahead. She shook her head and admonished herself for this breach in basic observation. She should've noticed a fork in the road. With that she carried on with her run, deciding to delve straight on instead of continuing in her usual direction.

Brooke Meiers was found three days later.

Henry's Bar was a trashy place, set two streets behind the main road of the tiny town of Kept Creek, Alabama. It was short, long and narrow, and very reminiscent of a trailer. Its weathered cinder block walls and dented tin roof made it a bit of a local wonder, mostly because the structure had no right to survive a strong wind, much less summer storms or the occasional tornado. Inexplicably, it stood the test of time as a favorite haunt for any local whose only standards were for the beer to be cold and cheap.

That particular July night, Henry's was packed and buzzing. The little light that filled the dank place filtered slowly through thick plumes of cigarette smoke, and the sticky bar was full from end to end. A dead girl made for big news, and everyone in Kept Creek wanted to hear about it. The majority of the clientele were as old as the bar itself, with hair to match the greyish-white of the cinder blocks that sheltered them.

The antique juke-box in the corner crackled out a heartbroken steel string ballad from the bowels of the seventies, but no one gave it any attention. Tonight was not for dancing, it was for talking.

"We got ourselves a new Dogwood Bride, I tell ya' what," A grizzled man garbled through a jaw that still held shrapnel from Vietnam.

"Pshhh," A short, stout man with cataracts huffed into his beer, "You don't know shit 'bout shit, Paul. Don't get people in a fuss," He took a long swig, spilling drops of his drink into his bushy mustache, "Not that most could understand you anyways," He added in an afterthought, proud of his joke.

Paul puffed out his broad chest, and for a moment in the dim, hazy light the strong young man he'd once been was almost visible, "Don't write checks your ass can't cash, Ralph," The threat had been much more effective in years past, and he was well aware of it, but the fact that his poorly-healed jaw made his speech close to incomprehensible was a touchy subject for him. His cousin Ralph was one of the few who could decipher Paul's words.

"Cool your jets, Paul, I'll buy your next round. Just don't go on 'bout Dogwood Brides," Ralph waved in what he assumed was the general direction of Henry the bartender. He internally cursed his cataracts, but outwardly smiled in anticipation of the inevitable questions.

"What the Hell's a Dogwood Bride?" A scruffy, round man barely in his fifties and youngest in the room by a decade piped up next to Paul.

"Don't you know nothin' 'bout this town's hist'ry?" Ralph snapped in pretend annoyance and whistled for Henry.

"Well, 'parently not, so why don't you enlight'n me?" The heavyset man gave a toothy grin.

"It's nuthin'. Superstitious bull piss," Ralph sat up straighter as Henry slammed two fresh mugs overflowing with foamy beer in front of him. He slid one to Paul, and they shared a smirk that said Ralph was forgiven for his poor joke.

"It ain't nuthin!" A screechy-voiced woman in her sixties with flame-red dyed hair pushed herself to the front of the crowd, "It's a cryin' shame, and we shouldn't dig up that heartache. C'mon, Paul!" She grabbed the large man's arm and tried to pull him to the empty dance floor, "Show me those moves!" She'd clearly had too much to drink, so no one paid her any mind. Pearl had been Paul's self-proclaimed 'lady-friend' since the Carter administration, and a regular at Henry's bar even longer. Their relationship was as much a marvel as the longevity of the building, as Pearl was hard of hearing even without straining to comprehend her boyfriend. Still, they managed.

"'Give me a second, woman," Paul muttered into his mug in a way that even Ralph couldn't understand.

"Now ya'll can't bring somethin' up and then pussyfoot 'round it. Go on and tell 'em," A white haired wisp of a man called out loudly from the far end of the bar, and the rest of the patrons fell silent. Those that hadn't heard the story before were few, but it was something no one minded hearing again. A morbid fascination perhaps, but in an otherwise dull town any excuse to mention the local taboo was welcome.

"Alright, well ever'body sit down 'cuz it's a long story, but I'll tell ya'll what I know," Ralph turned away from the bar to face the crowd, secretly very pleased to be the center of attention. It'd been ten years since the last one.