On a video call, Paulina Deacon watches her friend follow a frenzied murder of crows through the woods. Moments later, Pauli is horrified when John stumbles upon three men and is murdered. In fear for her own life, she drives until she finds herself in the small town of Briar, Wisconsin. She reinvents herself as Polly Madison and is quickly hired to work doing odd jobs at a rehabilitation clinic.
Hal Karlsen has poured his life in to the Briar clinic helping people with addictions. When Polly arrives with her secrets, he is equal parts irritated and intrigued.
Terror follows Pauli to this small town and grows stronger each day as she finds her place in the tiny, welcoming community. Slowly, she begins to open up to Hal. As they work together to uncover exactly who is after her and why, their friendship deepens.
He pledges to keep her safe. She swears to protect the clinic. But can either live up to those promises while the danger increases daily? And will those murderous crows drive her mad before they figure it all out?
The screaming crows drowned out John’s words.
“John? What did you say? I can’t hear you over that beastly noise!”
The view on Pauli’s dashboard-mounted cell phone switched from a wooded trail to John Tolen’s grinning face. “More like a fowl noise. Ha! It’ll get worse before it gets better. I’m going in to see what’s got this flock so shook up. Wish you were here!”
Paulina Deacon hid a smile and made certain her phone pointed only at her face. If John caught a glimpse of her car window in the screen, he’d know she was a scant mile from him instead of heading to her apartment in town.
“You’re recording this too, right?” he asked.
“Isn’t that the point of this app you’re testing?”
“Exactly. Unlike your ordinary video chat, it’s saving both videos to our phones. We can watch each other on a split screen later.”
Pauli’s experience with phone apps fit in the same thimble as her knowledge of quantum physics. But when John, who tested those apps for a living, asked to install one on her phone for a trial run, she’d agreed. He joked that if it worked in her decrepit device, it would work anywhere.
Because she liked John more than she liked any man she’d met, she’d recently suggested—shyly—that they run together when the weather permitted. This spring the weather in eastern North Dakota proved quite permissive. They ran through the tiny town of Clio, around the track at the high school where Pauli substitute taught and coached girls’ soccer, and lately were delighted to discover a little-used trail leading to an abandoned farm. It bordered a stand of hardwood trees which, in this section of eastern North Dakota, were in short supply.
Pauli could safely navigate the empty road while watching her phone screen. The phone was old and big and didn’t really fit in the holder. But if she drove off the road in a frenzy of distraction, her low-slung sports car would encounter nothing more hazardous than flat fields awaiting spring tilling. And that phone was one of her most precious possessions. The screen now showed John turning off the farm track and jogging along a faintly discernible trail into the trees.
“Is that a deer path?”
“Good eye!” He sounded approving, and Pauli glowed. Possibly John liked her, too. Maybe as much as she liked him.
“I still can’t see the crows.” The sound was full-scale battle. John shouted to be heard over it. “They must be congregated around whatever got them so ticked off. Used to irritate me that they were called a murder of crows, but now it makes sense.” John flicked the lens to his face for a moment and grinned. For the first time she could see the “Ask me about my apps” hat that she’d special ordered for him in Grand Forks. She’d worried he’d think it too silly, too personal, or too soon in their relationship, and regretted the impulse. He wore it now, and that warmed her. She pulled behind his pickup truck. At that moment, he turned the screen to display a tangle of scrubby bushes, in much fuller leaf than a few days ago, when they last ran this route. The screen wavered.
“What on earth?”
At first, Pauli couldn’t comprehend the image on her phone. People clustered in a small clearing. The entire six weeks she and John had jogged the abandoned farm road, they’d seen not a single person. Here were three. Two husky men with close-cropped hair, wearing black windbreakers, flanked the third man dressed in sports coat and khakis.
One of the windbreaker-wearing men glanced up and then directly at the screen. Which meant he looked directly at John. The man in the middle shouted. At least Pauli assumed it was a shout. The cacophony of crows and their hoarse anger grew louder, more wildly cruel. No sound could penetrate that. The birds were diving now, and the man who’d noticed John raised something to his shoulder. Pauli squinted at her five-inch screen. The something looked like a gun.
Crow hunters? No one wore hunting gear, and only the two in windbreakers carried rifles. The man in khaki slacks appeared unarmed. Pauli waited for the first man to blast at the crows, but, incredibly, the gun was pointed straight at John.
Pauli jammed the little car into park. “John, get out of there! I’m right behind your truck!”
John shouted. It sounded like, “Pauli! Run!” but the hideous crows didn’t quit shrieking, and she couldn’t be sure.
“I’m here! You run!”
This time the demand was clear, and Pauli hesitated only a second. From the moment the gun first pointed at the phone—at John—to when he’d shouted, hardly any time passed. Pauli reached for her door handle as a blast exploded through the protests of frantic birds. She ducked as if the bullet would come through the phone at her face. But even in this involuntary spasm, she couldn’t turn away from the screen. John’s phone flipped, and for a mere second—plenty of time—the camera caught his face. His hat must have flown off, giving Pauli a perfect view of the small red dot between John’s eyes. The world exploded in red. Then it went black.
The crows’ screams hit fever pitch, penetrating the closed doors and windows of Pauli’s little car. Black wings slashed past the screen and her car windows as she cowered in her seat. Crows overwhelmed the sky.
Terrified as she was, Pauli had to reach John. She pulled on the door handle, but it wouldn’t open. Again, she tried, almost sobbing in frustration, when the car rolled slightly. It wasn’t in park. She shifted, made certain the lever was securely on P, and shoved open the door.
The crows were gone.
And from somewhere not quite in sight, the sound of shouting men grew loud.
She snatched the door closed and shoved the car back into drive. Dirt exploded as she accelerated past John’s truck and toward town. She punched in the 911 emergency number. It didn’t connect. She tried again. There was enough cell signal for her conversation with John a minute ago. Why wouldn’t this transmit? Pauli tried four more times and finally tossed the phone onto the passenger seat when she almost slewed off the road. She’d need to race to the police station and tell them John Tolen was dead. And the faces of his killers were on her phone.