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The Box in the Woods: Chapter 29


For almost an hour, she had read from the diary. Her throat was dry and her voice was starting to crack a bit. Janelle had seen this and come over with a can of sparkling water. Stevie didn’t like sparkling water, but she guzzled it and then had to turn her head and try to conceal the massive belch this caused. She was not successful.

Poirot never burped after he identified the murderer.

Patty Horne had turned the color of five-day-old turkey. She was utterly still, her head cocked slightly to the left, and something almost like a queasy smile spread across her mouth. The rest of the assembled were silent.

Stevie glanced over at Shawn Greenvale, who sat with his chin tucked to his chest. None of that could have been easy for him to hear, no matter how long ago it had happened. But he bore it, like he had stayed strong for Paul. They may have broken up, but clearly Sabrina had been with Shawn because he was a fundamentally good guy. It just hadn’t worked out.

“So,” Stevie said, feeling another froggy burp rising in her throat and pushing it down painfully, “let’s start with this question: Who is Wendel Rolf, and what happened to him after he arrived at your house that day? I needed some help getting the answer. . . .”

She reached over to the laptop and switched the windows. An image projected onto the screen—a person with large glasses and straight, long hair.

“Hi,” Stevie said. “Tell everyone what you found out.”

“Hey,” Germaine said. “I’m Germaine Batt from The Batt Report.”

Germaine was a classmate of Stevie’s from Ellingham who ran her own online news channel. She and Stevie had an unusual, somewhat mercenary relationship, and this favor was going to have to be repaid. It was worth it.

“Okay.” Germaine had no problem dispensing with all other formalities and diving in. “I started with Harvard, because that came up in the conversation you showed me. I got in touch with some people there this afternoon and they pulled some yearbooks for me. Wendel Rolf graduated in the class of 1940, along with Arnold Horne. I found enlistment records for both of them on a genealogy website. Wendel Rolf was honorably discharged in 1946, and Arnold Horne in 1947. So far, so normal. But then, everything about Wendel Rolf just—goes away. I had to go through local paper archives and Facebook all day, but I found a relative of his. I pretended I was part of a Harvard alumni research thing, so they talked to me. Wendel Rolf went away for a weekend fishing trip in 1978. He never came back. He was declared dead in 1983. No one knows if he had an accident or not—but it sounds like his family thought he may have taken his own life and wanted to spare them somehow and make sure they got the life insurance money. You can find out a lot if you say you’re from Harvard.”

“So,” Stevie said, “Wendel Rolf sees his old classmate and army buddy Arnold Horne’s picture in a magazine. It’s definitely him. His name is in the caption. He decides to pay his friend a visit. It seems pretty clear that he realizes right away that something is off—that this isn’t Arnold Horne. In the conversation Sabrina overheard, he mentions another man—a von Hessen.”

“He was a lot easier to find,” Germaine said. “Otto von Hessen was a high-ranking Nazi intelligence officer working out of Berlin. Lots of stuff out there about him. He was last seen in April of 1945, right before Berlin fell. Then he vanished. Want me to put up the pictures?”

Stevie nodded, and Germaine shared her screen, putting Arnold Horne’s Harvard photo next to an official photo of von Hessen.

The resemblance was unmistakable.

“Arnold Horne went to Harvard and was a spy in World War II,” Stevie said. “He was in Berlin. We know from the conversation that he had a connection to von Hessen. When Berlin was falling and the Nazis needed to make their escape, what better way than to take the identity of an American intelligence officer? They aren’t identical, but the resemblance was good enough if you didn’t look too closely. The real Arnold Horne went to Germany, but it was Otto von Hessen who came back and started a quiet new life in America and tried to keep himself under the radar. He moved to a small town where nothing ever happened, ran the local bank, and didn’t like getting his picture taken. And for years, it worked out. But then, Barlow Corners built a statue, a local photographer took a good picture, and that picture went into a national magazine. Wendel Rolf saw his old friend’s photo, paid him a visit, and realized something was wrong—that he wasn’t visiting Arnold Horne at all. Wendel Rolf was never seen again. He’s victim number one. This is where the story begins. It’s also probably where the story would have ended if Sabrina Abbott hadn’t been in the cabana with Greg, if she wasn’t so observant and determined. Now . . .”

Stevie nodded to Germaine and closed that window, then turned to Patty.

“. . . you enter the story. It’s graduation, summer 1978. You told me yourself that you were kind of aimless. You had no plan for what you were going to do when the summer was over. Greg, your friends, hanging out—that was your whole world. On the day that Greg and Sabrina were in the cabana and your father met Wendel Rolf, you had no idea what was going on. None of those three people wanted you to know what had happened at your house that afternoon. That night, Wendel Rolf comes back, and your father kills him. The next day, Sabrina returns to the house and sees things have been moved around. She was already curious about what she’d heard. You still have no clue, and neither does your dad. But then, Sabrina’s conscience gets to her and she tells you she was in the cabana with Greg. You leave camp and tell your dad, and your dad knows that it’s all coming apart. Your friends—the ones he despises—are going to destroy your lives. I’m guessing a lot of things went down in your house that night. I think your dad told you the truth, or some version of it, because you knew your friends had to die, and you had to help your dad kill them. Something had to be done, fast, and he couldn’t exactly sneak into the camp and take care of it. It had to happen somewhere else, where there were no people around. And you knew exactly the spot—the weekly drug delivery out in the woods. Sabrina would be there. Eric, Todd, and Diane—they were unlucky. And who knows what they’d been told? They all had to die.”

Stevie put the slide with the photos of the four victims back up on the screen, so that Patty would have to look at them.

“You had to be protected. So the next day you returned to camp, and suddenly everything was fine with Greg—so fine that you were busted getting busy with him and put on house arrest. This ensured you had an ironclad alibi. Some details of the Woodsman murders had been in the paper. This was perfect. There was no internet then—if Arnold wanted to get the details, he would have needed to get a copy of the newspaper articles. So it’s not that surprising that Sabrina ran into him on July 5, when she was on her way out of the library and he was going in. That encounter sealed her fate.”

Stevie waved a stray bug that had gotten inside the Bounce House away from her face. She had been talking for a long time and her body was starting to ache. She wanted to flop down in a beanbag and rest for a while, but the story was not finished. It was time to open the box in the woods, time to ruin the surprise.

“On the night of the Box in the Woods murders,” she continued, “your father went into the woods. He went to the spot you told him to go to. He’d been a Nazi intelligence officer. He’d faked his identity for thirty-three years. Cornering four stoned teenagers in the woods was probably not a big deal. The evidence suggests what happened there. Todd and Diane were probably off by themselves in a sleeping bag. They had no defensive wounds, so they likely never saw him coming. They were killed where they were and taken away in the sleeping bag. Sabrina and Eric were each attacked in a different way. Sabrina fought—there were wounds on her hands. Eric had been struck on the head but managed to run away. That must have been a scare, because if Eric got away, the whole thing would be over. But your father caught him and killed him at the border of the camp. The scene was made to look like one of the Woodsman’s crimes, and the job was done. Except . . .”

Stevie brought up a photo of Greg.

“. . . Sabrina wasn’t the only one in that cabana. Greg was there too. This wasn’t a problem that could be partially solved. They all had to go. What did you say when your father told you your boyfriend had to die? Were you sad, or were you glad to get him back for cheating?”

Patty put her head down, and Stevie knew she had hit the bull’s-eye with this one.

“I was in the hospital last night, after you chased us through the woods with a gun. You ran Nate and me off Point 23, which is why my arm’s in this. . . .”

She held up her cast.

“I was kind of out of it last night. I kept trying to sleep, but there was this reflection of a flashing light that kept me up. It was really distracting. It got me thinking again about something you told me, Susan. What did you tell me you saw that night at the football field when all the students gathered?”

“The memorial night?” Susan asked.

Stevie nodded.

“I saw Patty crying at the end of the school driveway, and then I saw the crash up ahead.”

“No,” Stevie said. “That’s not exactly what you saw.”

“Well, no. I saw a flash of light as he crashed. He crashed around the bend.”

“Why would you see a flash of light when Greg crashed?”

“His headlight, I guess? As the bike spun around? I don’t know, actually.”

“How bright was it?”

“Very bright,” Susan said thoughtfully. “Enough that it’s most of what I remember. I suppose that would have been too bright for a headlight. Maybe it was something else.”

Stevie turned to Janelle.

“Can you bring it out now?” she asked.

Janelle nodded and tugged on Nate’s arm. They went into one of the side rooms and emerged a minute later with a large platform covered in cardboard and crafting materials. A box represented the high school. There was a curving road of fabric, glued down to the pasteboard. Some lumps of modeling clay represented the rocks at the turn of the road, and there were trees made of pipe cleaners and some kind of fluffy, moss-like substance. The Liberty High sign had been re-created with cardboard.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to make it look great,” Janelle said. “But the proportions are right. And here . . .”

She handed Stevie a few saltshakers, each filled with a different color of craft sand.

“Okay,” Stevie said, placing a saltshaker full of pink sand at the end of the driveway. “Here’s Patty Horne. And here . . .” She set a shaker full of green sand on the road next to Patty. “. . . this is you. Is this about where you were when you saw the light?”

“Yes,” Susan said. “I was about to turn into the driveway.”

“And what was Patty doing?”

“She was crying,” Susan said.

“But what else was she doing? What did you tell me?”

Susan paused for a moment, cocking her head in thought, puzzled by the question.

“Crying,” she said. “Screaming. Really upset. Waving a flashlight around.”

Stevie pointed at her, indicating this was the thing she had been waiting for.

“Waving a flashlight around,” she said.

“But that’s not the light I’m talking about,” Susan said quickly. “I saw something in the distance.”

“Oh, I know you did,” Stevie said, reminding herself not to smile.

She pulled out her phone. She held it next to the pink saltshaker.

“We need to turn down the lights for a minute,” Stevie said.

Carson hit the dimmer on the lights, and the barn fell into shadow. Stevie switched on her phone flashlight. She had already put a little masking tape around the light to narrow the beam. She angled it very slightly, flashing it around on the dark blue Liberty High sign. The little dot of light bounced around.

“Patty flashes her light here,” Stevie said. “Janelle, now.”

At the far end of the road, Janelle had rested her phone on the little clay rocks and pipe cleaner trees. She switched on her phone flashlight, which was not taped and brighter and broader than Stevie’s light. Stevie turned away immediately, as she had planned, and saw many people turn or shield their eyes.

“This is what you saw,” Stevie said. “Turn the lights back on.”

The lights came back up, and several people were still blinking.

“That’s a pretty good reconstruction,” Susan said. “But why would you have to demonstrate that?”

“Because what you saw was a signal and a response. Patty was shining her light on the sign, which is clearly visible from the far end of the road. That meant that Greg had left the parking lot and was traveling in the only direction he could travel—it’s a one-way road. Down at the other end of the street, her father was waiting with a high-powered flashlight. As Greg approached, he flashed it on. The light was bright enough that you saw it all the way up the road. Greg, being closer, would have been blinded by something that bright. A little drunk or high, unable to see, he loses control at the turn. The crash was a guarantee. Simple. Clean. Effective. Just an accident.”

“You wouldn’t even have to stand there to do it,” Janelle pointed out. “You could put something reflective there and shine the light from an angle so you were well out of the way. It’s so basic.”

“It really is,” Stevie said. “So basic that it looks like nothing at all. It’s something someone who studied spy craft would be really good at coming up with. Lights. Mirrors. Signals. Untraceable stuff. Simple, smart, and effective. I think you learned that from your dad, and when you had to kill Allison, you did it in the kind of way he would have done it. Allison always wanted her sister’s diary. The police didn’t have it. It was never found at the camp. As we learned, it was bad news for you if anyone found it. But if no one had turned it up since 1978, it wasn’t likely that it was ever going to be found. You’d always been safe. But then, a few days ago, I gave Allison a paper we found in the art supply tent, and Allison realized that while working the crafts with the counselors, Sabrina ordered a ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a turtle to paint. She made it to hide her diary. She also made the lid nice and tight so that the campers wouldn’t be able to get into it. Allison realized that the ceramic turtle she had in her house was a jar, not a figurine. She must have been so excited. She went home and tried to pry it open, but the lid was stuck. She had to figure out how to get it open without damaging it. Allison would never have damaged something of Sabrina’s. Did she call you, her friend, to tell you she thought she might know where the diary was? Your whole life—everything you’d built, everything you were—would be over. You’d be the daughter of a notorious murderer, not the daughter of a war hero. And maybe people would start to look into what happened with Greg a little more carefully. No. None of that could happen. You’d already let five of your friends die. Now one more had to go to keep your secret.”

Susan Marks turned and fixed Patty with a devastating gaze.

“What was the one thing you could count on with Allison? Her schedule. She ran every morning and she stopped on Arrowhead Point. That was perfect. Easiest thing in the world to fall off a place like that, and that there would likely be people nearby who would see the entire thing go down and be able to swear—absolutely swear—that no one else was up there. Honestly? I’m kind of worried that I gave you the idea. When we came into your shop on the first morning we were here and we were looking at your cakes, Janelle asked how you decorated them. You said that your trick was working from the outside in. I said, ‘Like a crime scene.’ No one ever listens to me when I say stuff like that, but I think you did. If Allison fell, the area would be roped off and investigated from the outside in. That means time. Time for something to vanish. And what vanishes on a hot rock in the sun?”

There was a pause as the assembled worked out whether or not this was a rhetorical question. Finally someone broke the silence with a tentative “Ice?”

“Ice,” Stevie said, forcing her inner confidence out into her voice. “There was no time for anything elaborate—no molds or anything like that. What you could do was make some sheets of ice. Put them on the point so that when Allison stepped on them, she slid right off. The evidence either melted away as the sun came up or some of it fell off with her. When the police examined the rock, there was nothing there. You had everything you needed—large sheet pans, a professional-sized freezer, large capacity containers like the kind used to transport elaborate food items—and one more thing, the only thing that left a trace.”

Stevie dug into her bag one more time and pulled out the remains of the Camp Sunny Pines shirt.

“I went up to Arrowhead Point when it reopened,” she said. “I poured out some water from my bottle to see how steep the surface was, then I got on the ground. I didn’t know it then, but I rehydrated something that was dried on the rock, and it won’t come off. That’s because it’s dye—food dye. You made some large, flat pieces of ice, tinted with dye to darken them. No one would notice it, and in time, it would all wash away with the rain. It was good I was there when I was, before the storm. Because this”—she held the shirt higher for emphasis—“this can be examined. It can be identified, right down to brand and type.”

Patty opened her mouth and closed it several times, like a fish gasping on the shore.

“This is absurd. . . .”

“Here’s the thing,” Stevie said. “Sabrina is a witness now. She’s speaking from the dead. And everyone here”—she motioned, indicating everyone in the room—“they heard it. And everyone who hears this podcast—”

“Oh, it’s a television show now,” Carson cut in. “For sure.”

“. . . or watches this show . . . they’re going to study you as you are right now, in this moment. This is your chance to tell your side. Because if you don’t, other people will tell it for you. Everyone will judge you. You won’t be able to escape it. You have a chance, right now, to say whatever you want to say. . . .”

“A piece of advice,” David said, folding his arms casually across his chest. “I’d tell her what she wants to know. The last person in your position tried to deny it too, and it didn’t work out well for them.”

“My father was a good man,” Patty said. “He did everything for me. He lived for me.”

There was a tremor in her voice, one that reflected the seismic activity that must have been going on inside of her—the rush and tumble of decades of psychological weight coming down—all the blocks and boulders she’d stacked to keep the truth as separate as possible.

“Your dad was a Nazi,” David corrected her. “And he murdered five of your friends.”

Patty stiffened and fell silent.

“Something you’re probably asking yourself right now,” Stevie went on. “How do I have this diary? You chased us. You saw us jump into the lake. You heard me scream that it was gone. I bet you checked. Were you there all night? I bet you checked the path, to make sure I hadn’t dropped it by accident. I bet you looked everywhere, to be really, really sure. Did you come back at dawn to check the lake to see if it was floating on the surface? Did you get in the water to look for it?”

The flicker of anger that passed over Patty’s face told Stevie the answer was yes, she had absolutely done that.

“So,” Stevie said, “you’re wondering how I got the diary out of the lake undamaged.”

I’m wondering,” Nate muttered, his voice tinged with awe.

The expectant silence in the room was delicious.

“What happened is that the diary never went into the lake,” Stevie said.

“Wait,” Nate said. “What? I was there. You said . . .”

“I said it went into the lake, yes.” She tried—unsuccessfully—not to smile. “I made sure you heard me scream. I don’t remember doing much else, because . . . I’d just fallen off a cliff into a lake. But I made sure to do that. I wanted you to think it was gone.”

Patty shifted in her seat angrily.

“Are you saying you hid it?” Nate asked. “When? We were running the whole time.”

“I have to thank Carson for this one,” Stevie said.

“What?” Carson said. “Me?”

“I didn’t have a lot of time, but I did have this . . .”

Stevie pulled out the wood-patterned Bag Bag, the one made of the same material that was used on her cabin wall.

“. . . stupid bag that looks like wood. It’s a really good pattern, right? Photorealistic. It fooled me too. I don’t blame you for not seeing it. It took me awhile to find it this morning, and I knew what I was looking for. Just before we jumped, I stuck the diary in there and I chucked it. Even if we didn’t make it, I thought . . . someone might find it. I had to keep it safe.”

Then something odd happened. Patty began to laugh.

Paul Penhale stood up.

“Patty . . . ,” he said in a husky whisper. “Patty . . . what did you do? Look at me, Patty. What did you do?”

She wheeled around at him, her eyes bloodshot from tears of laughter. Her face was contorted in a grimace of rage, relief, or some emotion that Stevie did not know. Something was breaking free inside of Patty Horne.

“You should say thank you,” she said. “You should say thank you. Todd Cooper? You know what he did to your brother. Everyone knew. The whole town let him get away with it. He told us what he did. He told us he hit Michael. Diane covered for him. Eric definitely had his suspicions, but he never stopped hanging out with him. Same with Greg. Same with me. We were all complicit. And what do you think they’d be doing if they were alive? Todd was a monster. Eric was a dealer. Diane was a stoner loser. Greg was a dirtbag. My father tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. In fact, if we’re all being honest, the only person anyone really mourned was Sabrina. Perfect Sabrina. But who was hanging out with Todd Cooper that night? Perfect Sabrina. Who was making out with my boyfriend at my house when I wasn’t home? Perfect Sabrina. Spare me your sanctimony. And whatever this was . . .” She waved at the screen, Stevie, the Bounce House, the crowd. “None of this is . . . real. This is some murder-obsessed kid making things up.”

Sergeant Graves chose this moment to get up and walk over to Patty Horne.

“I’d like to speak to you outside, please,” she said.

“I’m not going outside with you.”

“If you like,” the detective said calmly, “I’m happy to speak to you in here as well. Outside was for your privacy. Ms. Bell came and spoke to me earlier and told me what she knew. I was able to get a warrant this afternoon. You own a firearm.”

It was not a question.

“I have a warrant for that, and for your DNA to do a familial match against the sample recovered from Eric Wilde’s shirt. I have a swab with me. It will only take a minute of your time.”

She nodded toward the back of the room.

“I have two officers with me to assist,” she said. “If you could just go over and join them, we’ll continue this conversation somewhere private. I’ll be by once I speak to Ms. Bell for a moment.”

Sergeant Graves waved Stevie over to a door leading to a small back patio.

“You didn’t mention that you recovered the diary,” she said to Stevie.


Sergeant Graves pulled a glove from her pocket, slipped it on, and took the diary from Stevie.

“And the shirt,” she added.

Stevie handed over the remains of the shirt.

“We’re also going to talk about the shooting that you failed to mention. So you and your friends are going to stay in this building so we can get some statements and sort this out.”

They stepped back inside and Sergeant Graves dismissed most of the assembled. Stevie noted that many people had already recorded some of the events and were clearly posting them online. Carson was pinging around the room, trying to prevent this, but that bird had flown. He came over to Stevie and let out a long sigh.

“I’m going to sell so many of those bags,” Carson said, not nearly as quietly as he should have.


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