Six Years Earlier
Just off the coast of North Carolina lies Panem Island, a quaint community of beachfront mansions, picturesque bungalows and a few run-down trailer parks. The barrier island detached from the mainland years ago, the causeway swallowed by the rising sea, and it became accessible only by boat or a short ferry ride. The isolation used to fuel its charm as a desirable summer vacation destination. But now its seclusion lends an eerie, desolate feel to the hamlet, particularly in the off-season when only a scant number of residents stay behind. Most of them make their living contributing to the dwindling tourism industry, though a few still dabble in fishing and crabbing.
The serenity of this once-idyllic little haven was irrevocably shattered six years ago on a warm day in late June by the screams of then-eighteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen.
The elder daughter of Panem Island's sheriff arrived home on a Tuesday afternoon from her summer job lifeguarding on Pearl Cove Beach. She intended only to run into the house to quickly shower and change into her work clothes before her night shift at Sae's, the island's popular diner. (Perhaps popular is a relative term, as the restaurant was one of the only dining establishments that stayed open year-round.)
To hear Katniss tell it—and she was forced to give a lengthy statement to Officer Wade Hawthorne—she put her '94 Camry in park and left it idling in the driveway. She figured it would not take more than a few moments to throw on the sunny yellow polo and khakis that comprised the standard uniform for waiters and waitresses at Sae's.
The girl trembled violently as she recalled the sense of dread she had when she approached the front door and found it slightly ajar. She wasn't necessarily afraid, she said. More like wary, uncertain. Her father was at work, and her mother should have been too—Lilly Everdeen was as a nurse at the hospital on the mainland, most recently in the maternity ward, but she had been on the overnight shift for the better part of the last month. On that fateful day, she had worked a double shift to help out a fellow nurse who had a family emergency in Rocky Mount. She wasn't due home until after six. And she didn't think Prim had come back from the Hawthornes' early—her fourteen-year-old sister wasn't allowed to stay home alone all day yet, and so Prim spent many hours at the Hawthorne home.
Officer Haymitch Abernathy knew the Everdeen family well. He had been a friend of the sheriff for years and an employee of his for nearly eleven. He knew Katniss was not prone to dramatics, nor was she the kind of girl who would have cowered outside and waited for someone to come to her aid. Jack and Lilly Everdeen had instilled strength and self-confidence in both their daughters (not to mention he frequently took Katniss hunting and the girl was a natural with a rifle and a crossbow). So in spite of the open door, she had gone inside.
When the dispatcher picked up the 911 call that afternoon and heard a hysterical Katniss, screaming between the sobs and hiccoughs, it became evident very, very quickly that something was very, very wrong.
"My mother!" she shrieked. "My mother is dead! My mother is dead!" She kept repeating those four words, her hysteria rising with each reverberation, her voice shrill and tight.
The dispatcher prompted Katniss for more information, but the girl was inconsolable and increasingly unintelligible. Thus, Officer Abernathy was sent to the Everdeen residence to retrieve the girl and Officer Hawthorne given the lamentable task of informing the sheriff of the suspected crime scene at his home.
On the way to the Everdeens, Officer Abernathy phoned Mellarks' Bread and Bakery, hoping the baker's youngest son would be there. Seventeen-year-old Peeta Mellark was Katniss's boyfriend, and if anyone could comfort the panic-stricken teen, it was the mild-mannered, kind-hearted blond football player and wrestler.
But when Bram Mellark answered the phone, he kindly informed Officer Abernathy that Peeta was helping out at football tryouts for next fall's team (in spite of graduating a few weeks earlier, he had offered to work with the team right up until he left for college in August) and wasn't expected home for several hours. Mr. Mellark offered to text his son and relay a message to the young man, but Haymitch politely declined. The news of Lilly Everdeen's death was not something to be shared over a telephone. Not in a town where gossip traveled faster than a brush fire in July. Besides, the boy hardly went a few hours without speaking with Katniss in some way. He would find out soon enough.
When Haymitch arrived at the Everdeens, he found Katniss on the front stoop, her arms wrapped around her slender frame, rocking and whimpering. He noticed her white-and-navy Pumas were flecked with splotches of red, and there were bloody footprints leading from the wide-open door.
"Katniss, sweetheart." Haymitch squatted down and placed a hand on the girl's shoulders. She trembled beneath his touch, but otherwise, she did not react. She didn't look at him and she continued to rock and shake.
"She's dead," she whispered, her voice flat. "Dead. My mother is dead."
Haymitch squeezed her bony shoulder and slowly rose, placing a cautious hand on the revolver in his belt as he ventured into the silent house. Scanning the modest foyer, his eyes landed on the path of Katniss's bloody sneaker impressions. Their positioning indicated that the girl had likely stumbled or staggered away from the scene. He fought back a lump that threatened to rise in his throat as he approached the kitchen, following the sanguineous red trail.
The sight before him would haunt him forever.
Lilly Everdeen was indisputably dead.
Her nude body was sprawled across the linoleum floor at the center of a wide, bright-red pool of her own blood. Her beautiful sapphire eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, glassy and lifeless. She was already turning blue as livor mortis settled in, patches of purplish-red bruises marring her porcelain skin. Her body was riddled with stab wounds, and a large gaping slash appeared to have nearly decapitated her. Her swollen tongue protruded from her pale lips. No wonder her daughter was nearly catatonic. And there was so much blood, he noted sadly.
Haymitch suddenly felt uneasy given her naked state; he had seen a handful of dead females in his years on the force, and he had never given much thought to their nudity when he performed his duties. But never had the deceased hit so close to home. It felt voyeuristic to be scrutinizing Lilly's body—the dead body of his friend's wife—in such a manner, job or no job.
He sighed and pulled out his radio to confirm the presence of a female, DOA, at the Everdeen house and requested backup.
Within five minutes, Officer Hawthorne screeched to a halt in the driveway and knelt next to Katniss, gently shaking the girl, whispering her name and unleashing a mournful, keening wail from her throat as she collapsed into his arms. Haymitch would never forget the raw pain in the poor girl's cries as she staggered on sober legs to Officer Hawthorne's patrol car.
Nor will he forget the vacant look in Jack Everdeen's eyes when he arrived a few minutes later, ambled in to his house and knelt next to the body of his wife of twenty-two years, the mother of his children, the love of his life.
"Lilly, wake up, baby," he whispered, gently brushing the matted hair from her forehead.
"Jack, she's gone."
"Wake up, Lilly!" Jack repeated fiercely.
"Jack, c'mon man. Don't do this to yourself." Haymitch tugged on his boss's shoulder. The anguished man roughly shoved away Haymitch's hand and let out a doleful scream that reverberated in Haymitch's ears and heart.
"She can't be gone. She can't be fucking gone! I need her. Fuck, Haymitch!"
Haymitch finally convinced the distraught sheriff to leave the body and have a seat in the living room. It would have been preferable to get him to head back to the station, but Jack steadfastly refused to leave his Lilly. The living room was the furthest Haymitch could persuade him to move; at least he could still see the body from there.
The depth of Jack's pain was brutally evident; not once since the man had arrived at his house had he asked about either of his daughters. Jack Everdeen was a father who doted on his two girls; his desk was cluttered with photographs of them, and his bulletin board still displayed crayoned drawings and coloring book pages that were now yellowed at the edges. Haymitch took the initiative to assure Jack that neither of his daughters had been harmed and both were safe.
It took an hour, but another officer finally arrived to assist Haymitch in processing the crime scene. Together, they carefully combed the kitchen, bagged evidence and left tented yellow cards around the space to mark points of interest. There was very little to go on.
Hazelle Hawthorne, Wade's wife, arrived around six o'clock with a large brown bag. She settled next to Jack on the couch and spoke quietly to him, pulling out a turkey sandwich and some potato salad. Jack stared straight ahead and did not touch the food.
Haymitch and Officer Joel Cray accepted their sandwiches gratefully and ate in silence. It felt odd, chewing and swallowing, such mundane human actions when the lifeless corpse of a once-vibrant woman lay several yards away.
Just after seven o'clock, a breathless Peeta Mellark rang the Everdeen doorbell, and Haymitch let the agitated boy in.
"Where's Katniss?" he demanded, his blue eyes wide with concern. "She's okay, right? She's not answering her cell phone. I've left her ten messages and sent her, like, fifty texts!"
"Officer Hawthorne took her down to the station a few hours ago to take her statement. You heard what happened then?" Haymitch asked quietly, and Peeta nodded. "She found the body," Haymitch adds.
The boy's eyes bulge. "Oh, god. God, poor Katniss." Peeta fidgeted, his shoulders sagging visibly. "Can, I, uh…can I wait for her? I mean, am I allowed to be here and wait…" He glanced anxiously over Haymitch's shoulder into the kitchen, and Haymitch automatically steered him to the living room, where Mr. Everdeen was still sitting in silence.
"In here. You can wait in here." He didn't want the young man seeing the body of his girlfriend's mother. Haymitch had been viewing corpses for years, and it never got any easier. The poor kid would be scarred for life. He cringed to think that the same fate would most likely befall Katniss.
"I need to see her; I need to be here for her," the blond boy continued. "So thanks for letting me stay." He lowered his voice. "Is Mr. Everdeen okay? Where's Prim?"
"Prim's at the Hawthornes. Hazelle was here a little while ago with food. She's keeping Prim there overnight."
As if on cue, the front door opened, and Gale Hawthorne crossed the threshold, a pale Katniss clinging to him.
Peeta darted across the living room and reached his girlfriend in two strides. "Katniss!" He enveloped the numb girl into his arms, easily guiding her away from Gale, who stepped back immediately, aware that it was not his place to comfort her now that her boyfriend was here.
What Peeta did not expect was for Katniss to struggle in his arms. She thrashed against him, ignored the boy's gentle whispers against her ear, and shoved away the hands trying to rub her back consolingly.
"Let go of me! Gale!" she cried. "Gale, please!" Gale shot Peeta a frantic look and upon seeing the slight nod of the younger boy's head, he gathered Katniss into his own arms. She buried her face into Gale's chest and began sobbing anew.
Haymitch could see the look of complete devastation on the boy's face. He was visibly crushed by his girlfriend's rejection.
"Katniss, let's go see your dad. He needs you too," Gale coaxed quietly. He led the raven-haired girl to the couch and gently pushed her down to sit next to Mr. Everdeen.
Wordlessly, father and daughter instinctively clung to each other, unintelligible murmurs rising and fresh tears flowing.
Gale stepped back and sidled up to Peeta, who was watching Katniss intently. "She'll come around. I've just known her since we were kids and…I don't think she knows what's going on right now. She's probably in shock."
"I know, Hawthorne. I know," Peeta murmured, but he sounded defeated, unconvinced.
"Guys, maybe you should let her be with her father right now," Haymitch offered, checking his phone for messages. "Officer Cray and I are just about finished here. Coroner is on his way."
"I'm not leaving her," Peeta declared, his voice tight.
As it turned out, he didn't leave Katniss Everdeen that night.
He didn't leave her when he ushered her upstairs to her bedroom and helped her undress, cocooning her into his embrace as he laid her down. Her tears dampened his bare chest, his fingers threading through her knotted chestnut waves as he let her cry until she was spent.
He didn't leave her when she sobbed that she couldn't stay there; he knew he couldn't take her to his house, so he drove down to the dunes and spread a blanket across the backseat of his Jeep. She allowed him to kiss away her sorrows, and she clung to him wordlessly as they stripped away their clothes and his body comforted hers until she fell into a restless slumber. He held her in his arms and whispered quiet promises to always be there for her as he coaxed her through the first of several nightmares until the sun rose over the water.
He didn't leave her side when she numbly greeted the mourners who arrived at the funeral home to pay their respects, and he held her upright, rubbing her back and squeezing her hand as her mother's casket was lowered into the ground several days later.
But within two weeks, she was the one doing the leaving. Katniss Everdeen broke Peeta Mellark's heart when her father resigned from the force, took his daughters and left Panem Island.
They never returned.
And to this day, the murder of Lilly Everdeen remains unsolved.
Author's Note-So welcome to another story! I've had this in the works for a while, but as A Favorable Wind winds down, I'm throwing myself more into this and figured it would be a good time to post the prologue and gauge a reaction. Thrillers are actually one of my favorite things to read; after rereading Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) last summer, I had to apply the formula to THG. The premise of the weekend wedding actually came from Harper's Island, a mini-series that ran on CBS a few summers back, but to the few who might have seen that, NO, I'm not following that plot/killer. But there will be bloody deaths and lots of sex, so hang tight. And the rest of this story will be told in revolving third-person point-of-view—only this prologue is 3rd person objective.
This story is dedicated to my fellow forensic obsessor, Chelzie. (Yes, you can pretend Bill Kurtis or the guy from Forensic Files narrated this!) And I must thank RynMar and jeeno2, for encouraging me when I first conceived this crazy idea and streetlightlove for prereading this and checking for continuity errors.
I'd love to know what you think of this! Thanks for reading.