My Cole Wright thrillers are out now. Visit the page for the full rundown.
The third novel Hide Away will be out on May 20th, so to entice you, I’m putting up this story in the lead up to release day. The story will be up for a week or so from May 10th (and then available for purchase as and ebook and in print). I hope you enjoy this taster.
Charlie and Suze just want a quiet, relaxing hike through Crater Top park. A beautiful, tranquil and hidden in the mountains.
Helping out with the park’s trails, Cole Wright enjoys the change. The chance to do something different.
No one expects trouble. Not way out there.
But then, trouble has a way of showing up.
The Forest Doesn’t Care
by Sean Monaghan
A speck of rain struck Charlie’s ragged old peaked cap. Right on the brim. Louder than rain had any right to be. He reached up and touched the brim, running his fingers along the threads there, feeling the softness of the edge where it was fraying.
It was a Cardinals cap bought at a game when his grandfather had taken him umpteen years ago. Some game that had been too. Drosser had smacked it clean out of the park, but the Cardinals had still lost.
Now Charlie touched a spot of damp right there on the peak. Definitely rain. On the way. It had seemed distant for a while, the swish of a squall coming through. Others had passed them by.
Charlie looked back along the rugged trail. He’d stepped over roots and rocks, now not even sure if it was a trail. The ground was boggy, reeking like old compost. There was a clear path back through the pines. Either side it was dark. The overcast sucking light from everything, especially here in the woods.
He adjusted his pack, the straps were cutting a little into his shoulders. Wrong kind of thing really to take out on this kind of walk.
Just a little generic daypack. Practically the kind of thing a down on their luck mom or dad might purchase at one of those dollar stores so their kid had something to take what little lunch they had to school
Charlie had just tossed in a raincoat—a light one, fat lot of good that would if it really rained—some tasty chocolate protein bars and a half liter of Jungle Juice.
The trail sloped up here, heading for some peak or other. There had been tantalizing glimpses of light, as if there were clearings, or a road or even the peak itself.
When he and Suze reached them, though, each time, it was just a deceptive, momentary change in slope.
Suze was somewhere ahead. Better prepared, that was for sure. She’d bought herself a Fairbreaker coat. A layered jacket that keeps rain out, but wicks away sweat in some kind of magical transference. She had a proper pack with wide straps and some kind of spout that reached over her shoulder, connected to a built-in water flask. Kept her hydrated.
If this rain came to anything, hydrated wasn’t going to be a problem.
From nearby, something squawked. Some kind of bird, chasing down a rodent or smaller bird.
There was wildlife here. Half the reason for coming. ‘Crater Top Nature Park’. Sixty acres of beautiful old growth forest, so it said on the webpage. Didn’t mention that it was sixty acres set in thousands of acres of clear-felling. The view from one of the little ledge clearing they’d reached seemed to encompass just a vast swathe of broken land. Brown, churned earth, with stumps and branches and abandoned lodgepoles that had broken or split on felling. A rusted, yellow trailer of some kind with one of the tires canted and twisted at a bad angle.
The idea was to focus on the surrounds. The pretty mosses growing in around the roots. The bursts of mushrooms from rotting trunks. The swish and sway of the trees in the gentle wind.
“Charlie?” Suze called from ahead. She was around a bend and hidden from sight. He’d last seen the flash of her guacamole-green pack a few minutes back.
She was the serious hiker. He was happy to do day walks here and there, but she was in the club. Trailblazers. A bunch of early to late middle aged women who would rise at the crack of dawn, march over a mountain range and sleep on some windswept plateau in rustling tents.
“Not far behind,” he called back.
Ahead there were gaps in the trees. Daylight. Or, at least, the overcast. Another of those tantalizing shifts in the slope that made you think you were coming up on the ridge.
From off to his right, east, came the patter of rain. Coming closer. The leading edge. Probably heading straight for them.
Easing through the curve in the trail, he spotted Suze forty yards ahead. Her red coat already on and the hood up. Her pack on the ground, leaning against her legs.
Facing away from him. She had her hands out. Moving her head as if talking to someone.
There was a definite slope change where she was. From his angle it looked almost as if she was on the ridge. But beyond, there was a bank, then more trees.
The road cutting. She’d mentioned it. Shown him on the map. An old forestry road, used by the park’s people now to service the various amenities. There was some kind of vault toilet near the top, apparently.
For rescues too perhaps. If Charlie tripped and busted his ankle here, he would need carrying out.
As he drew closer, Charlie saw the back end of a pickup. Big and new. Black. Shiny. Chunky tires. A tow ball.
The tailgate was open. The front end was hidden by the foliage.
More rain was coming in. Still just a shower, but pretty soon it would be torrential.
Charlie kept walking.
There was someone else there. Standing just the other side of the pickup. Head and shoulders visible.
Older guy. Lot of gray in his thick beard. He had a maroon beanie on his head. He was saying something to Suze.
Charlie drew up almost to them. Maybe these guys could give them a ride back down to the parking lot at the trailhead. Save them a walk in the rain.
Charlie came up almost level. Just a few yards from Suze. The guy stepped forward.
“Hey,” Charlie said. Now he could see into the pickup’s tray.
A body lying there.
A woman. Blood all over her face. Eyes staring blankly.
“Welcome to the party,” the guy said, stepping around.
He was holding a rifle.
Aimed right at Suze.
Cole Wright Stood by the open door of the park’s busted and beat up SUV. A twelve-year old RAV4. Bought secondhand on a very tight budget. Bought from donations a few years back.
Jim Targell, who’d employed Wright, said that it had been one of the best investments they’d ever made.
Right now, at the rocky, exposed crown of Crater Top, Wright had a fabulous view across the local landscape. There were tall trees below, but around the top they only grew a few feet high. Too rocky and dry and barren. The air was filled with their sweet pine scent.
Across the valley, on private land, some huge acreages of forest had been clear-felled. Every single tree cut down, leaving stumps a foot high. In five years it would look better, with neat rows of green saplings.
Farther off the hills turned to blue, fading into the distance. An to the east, a curtain of rain was drawing in. Maybe another few minutes and Wright and Targell were in for a drenching.
“One minute,” Targell said from nearby.
The crown hosted a cellphone tower. Something put in by T-Mobile. They paid to have it here, and made a contribution to the road. Even made a grant to put new tires on the RAV a year back. Targell liked to tell the stories.
The name Crater Top was kind of a misnomer. There was a crater, but it was far below and lost in the forest. The peak might have been part of the rim a hundred thousand or a million years ago. There was a flat area with just enough room to turn the vehicle around, and the tower.
A trail led off to the south, and fifty yards farther down, occupying a flat spot, there was a functional toilet hidden in the trees. Functional in that you could use it. It stank and attracted flies. A half hour back Wright had replaced the rolls of paper and the squeeze bottle of sanitizer. Before he left he’d squirted a couple of good dollops onto his hands and rubbed it around. Still didn’t feel quite clean.
Wright was just here for a few days, probably. Help out with maintenance on the trails and amenities. Another grant, from the county, was paying for it. Suited him. It came with a simple room in the park’s office, meals and a little spending cash for his back pocket.
He and Targell were up here tasked with maintenance on the cyclone wire fence that protected the base of the tower. T-Mobile were paying. Tightening bolts and wires and sending photos back to the technicians who would do the regular and more technical maintenance.
“All right,” Targell said, closing up his toolbox and loading it into the RAV’s rear. He came around and got into the driver’s seat.
Wright got in next to him and they closed their doors with groaning, squeaky thunks. Wright was tempted to donate his meagre salary back to the park so they could get a service done on the vehicle.
“The phone company could do all this themselves,” Targell said, reaching through the gap between the seats and pulling out his little blue cooler.
“They could,” Wright said, knowing what was coming. The company has to charge out their own workers at seventy dollars an hour. Two of them for a full day really added up. Cheaper to give every second inspection to the park volunteers and make another donation.
Targell folded down the top of his cooler and handed Wright a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a Coke can.
“Got a bit warm there, sorry,” Targell said.
“No trouble.” Wright unwrapped the sandwich. Targell lived fifteen minutes away, in Clawville, a town of nearly four thousand. He’d been a doctor, but become a part-time ranger—part-time paid, full-time employed, he would say—because things weren’t working out. Wright figured a malpractice suit that wasn’t worth fighting.
Targell always made lunch for them both. Trout in the sandwiches, that he’d caught and gutted and seared himself. Wright wasn’t sure about trout sandwiches that had been warming in a cooler all morning, but it was food and he wasn’t fussy. With rocket and mayo, the sandwich was pretty delicious.
He sipped from the cola as Targell ranted on about the phone company and their generosity, but with a level of corporate cynicism.
The vehicle was parked facing east and the rain was almost upon them. The first scattered drops already impacting the windshield.
“Well,” Targell said, balling up the plastic wrap from his sandwich, “we’d better head on down before there’s some landslide that does the job for us.”
He started the engine and the old vehicle shook and rattled. Targell put his own soda in the central cup holder, adjusted the shift and backed carefully around. It took three goes. A K turn.
Then they were on the road. Gravel crunching under the tires. The angle was steep. The little vehicle was ideal. Light and agile. Targell was a cautious driver.
But he had to throw on the brakes as they came around one of the switchbacks to see a big black pickup blocking the way.
The RAV4 juddered and shook against the sudden incursion of braking. Wright’s seatbelt jerked against him. Kept him from smacking into the dash.
Wouldn’t have been much of an impact anyway. The little vehicle hadn’t been moving more that about ten miles an hour. Targell was a cautious driver.
“Well, ain’t that something?” Targell said. “Lookit this guy. Don’t he even know about this road?”
It was a narrow road, that was for sure. To the left of the RAV was a brown crumbly bank. About six feet high and three feet from the side of the vehicle. Once, perhaps thirty years back, someone had driven a dozer back and forth up the route to create the narrow roadway. Perhaps with a backhoe in attendance to help with bigger boulders. Likely one of those bulldozers with a backhoe attachment.
The road was graveled with bright white-gray chips. Some kind of old metamorphic rock. Probably gathered from riverbeds a hundred miles from here and run through a crusher. From there loaded into a dump truck which would come up after the dozer and let the loads slowly drift out.
Not a full coverage. More like a nominal amount. Enough to be obvious and to give the road some surface and cohesion, but not thick bed of the stuff.
The pickup was a big Dodge. New. A dubbie—double tires at the back, making it even wider. One side was right on the road’s downhill shoulder and the other side was less than eight feet from the exposed bank.
Maybe enough room for Targell to edge his way by. Could be almost like a challenge. Was it possible to squeeze a baby SUV through the gap. Eye of a needle stuff.
“There’s a turnout about two hundred yards down,” Wright said. “Guess the driver can back along and give us room.”
Targell looked at Wright with admiration.
“You remembered that?” Targell said. “That’s some attention there, my boy.”
Wright nodded. He took a sip from his soda and set it into the door cup holder. Put his hand on the door handle.
“Want me to go talk to them?”
“Doesn’t seem like there’s anyone around. Maybe parked here to go hiking. The trail crosses about here.”
Targell pointed ahead to a set of steps in the uphill bank. Hikers could arrive at the road, look both ways presumably, and cross to take the steps to continue into the forest and on toward Crater Top.
“I’ll go look,” Wright said. “At least then I’ll be out of the car and can maybe guide you around.”
“Think we can fit?”
“Yes I do.”
Wright opened his door and right away cooler, damp air blustered in. Splatters of rain.
The pickup had tinted side and back windows, and reflection off the windshield made it impossible to see if there was anyone inside.
Wright stepped out to the road. He was wearing jeans and work boots and a tee shirt with a light jacket. In back of the RAV he had a halfway decent parka, but he figured he was going to be out of the vehicle all of a minute and a half. Just to check. If he did have to direct Targell around, Wright could grab the parka when he came back.
“Darnedest thing,” Targell said. “Who comes up here like this anyway?”
“We’ll soon know.” Wright closed the door.
He walked down the roadway, feeling it in his thighs. The grade was probably up around twenty-five percent. Not somewhere you’d bring the family sedan.
Drops of rain began thonking onto the pickup’s hood. Wright put his hand on it.
Still warm. Probably hadn’t been here long. He and Targell had been at the top for less than an hour.
“I didn’t hear the engine,” Targell said, coming up beside Wright. “Funny. That kind of sound usually carries real well out here.”
“Maybe with the weather?” Wright said.
“Could be, could be.”
Close enough now, Wright could see there was no one inside the cab.
The tailgate lay open.
He kept walking. The gap between the right rear wheel and the bank was narrower than he’d thought. It would be real hard to navigate the RAV through. The ground against the bank was boggy and weedy and there were some big rocks there that had fallen from above somewhere. Big enough that they would interfere with the vehicle. Too big for Wright to lift easily.
He was strong and he might move one or two, but chances were he’d end up tearing a muscle or ripping a tendon from the bone.
“Blood,” Targell said, looking over the pickup’s tray rim. “Looks like someone shot an animal.”
Elongated pools of it. In the corrugated base of the tray. Smears across the tailgate. The intensity of the rain was growing. Splashing into the narrow pools. Diluting them. Throwing up bloody splashes.
“Deer,” Targell said. “Not allowed to hunt in the park. This really riles me up, you know.”
“I know.” Wright looked some more.
Didn’t make sense.
“I can see what you’re thinking,” Targell said. “I know you were a cop.”
Wright nodded. He’d had to put it on the application. Of course. Years on the force. Done with that now.
“So?” Targell said. “Crime scene, do you think?”
Probably a much simpler explanation. Usually was. You didn’t have to go rushing into speculation about foul play.
Though, there was something about it.
“If they shot a deer,” Wright said, “wouldn’t they just load it into the tray?”
“Or strap it across the hood. You know these guys.”
“I mean,” Wright said, “If there’s blood here now, then the deer was already loaded. Why take it out?”
Targell was right. Once you’d been a cop, you had a certain way of looking at things.
“Mystery,” Targell said. “Why does anyone do anything? Why park your pickup blocking the road?”
But Wright had stopped listening.
He’d spotted a backpack lying on the ground right behind the pickup.
The spade was heavy in Charlie’s hand. The rain was coming in.
He didn’t know where Suze was.
His face and knees were ragged from pushing through the undergrowth. His ankles hurt.
Nearby a bird screeched. A lark or an eagle. He didn’t know his birds. Thought they looked great when they flew in long Vs high overhead, or when they plunged into the water chasing fish. When the seagulls fought over fries at the lakeshore, always one that was mad and squawking at the others and always another one with a twisted, damaged foot that had to fight for its share.
Why was he thinking about that?
Here he was, way off the trail they’d been following. Carrying a spade. With two armed men following him. Growling instructions.
He was nearly forty years old. Right at the cusp of thinking of selling the business and sinking the cash into something else. Not quite retirement money, but enough that he could work part time.
He was done with carpets, that was for sure.
Years of laying them and then years of selling them until he’d bought out Sonny Marshall and continued building the business. Running a business sure was different from cutting and fitting carpets. Different from being on the shop floor attempting to explain to customers the benefits of wool over nylon and the subtle distinctions between undelays.
“You don’t have to do this,” Suze said, coming along behind. They’d made her haul the body. Loaded it onto a tarp and had her drag it along.
Impossible to imagine what Suze was going through.
A squirrel appeared on the trunk of a tree nearby. Bright eyed and fluffy tailed. The little animal stared at Charlie for a moment before racing off around the other side of the trunk.
“Thirty more yards,” one of the guys said. “You’ll see the spot.”
They’d had this all planned out. Kill someone. Bring the body out here.
Bad luck was all. For Charlie and Suze. Wrong place.
Otherwise the guys would have done all this themselves. The dragging. The digging.
The rain was coming in harder now. Not quite a downpour, but steady.
His little coat was still in his backpack. It might have made a little difference. He would be soaked through soon. Dripping wet.
Funny. Fifteen minutes ago, that would have bothered him. He would have been suggesting they head back. Get in the car and go to the motel. Shower and grab pizza and maybe stream a movie. Let the storm just play out.
Now, with a spade in his hand and his wife dragging a body and guys with hunting rifles, the rain was practically nothing.
“Off to your left,” the guy said. The one who did the talking. The other one hadn’t said a thing.
Charlie stepped around the a trunk and pushed through some draping ferns.
Of course, he had a weapon now. The spade.
If he stepped right and swung around, he might catch the guy unaware. Might knock the rifle right out of his hands. Hit him in the side of the head and race back to the other guy before he could take aim.
Knock him down too.
Like those guys in the movies do.
Truth was, Charlie was out of shape. Who wasn’t at his age?
And he had no training. Would have no idea about how to stop them from shooting the two of them.
These long weekends were supposed be time for him and Suze. Now that Casey had left for college and Alan had joined the air force been sent almost right away to Edwards, there was an awful lot of space and time.
Hard to tell yet if they were growing together or growing apart.
He pushed through another fern. Wet with rain. Drops from it ran down his legs. Ran into his boots.
He stepped into a clearing. A patch where there was grass and flowers growing. The smell was sweet and succulent.
The guy came up behind him.
Charlie glanced back. Suze was ten yards behind. Still dragging the tarpaulin.
She looked miserable.
“We didn’t do anything to you,” Charlie said to the guy.
“Doesn’t matter.” The guy pointed at the ground. “Start digging.”
Charlie nodded. Do what the man with the gun says.
Charlie adjusted his grip on the spade and jammed it into the ground. The blade bit deep. Soft, friable soil.
He pushed the handle back to lift out the first load and as he did, something occurred to him.
Not that he was digging a grave. That was obvious.
What occurred was that he was digging three.
An ache settled in his gut.
They’d just come up for a hike. Just to see the view.
It wasn’t fair.
“Dig faster,” the guy said.
The rain pelted in against Wright’s head and shoulders. Finding gaps in the trees. Hard and cold.
The trees and rain and overcast seemed to suck all the light out of world.
A light green backpack. The color of mashed peas. Standing up, the rain bouncing from it. Right where the trail met the road.
Not just any pack, either. It looked expensive. A logo with the word Osprey embroidered in. Straps and zips and pockets, and a transparent water tube leading from the extra carry handle a the top.
Could be anything. But his training kicked in. Blood. Abandoned pickup. Abandoned pack.
Not like the kind of pack someone would mind losing either. This was something you kept hold of.
He tromped down the trail. Just a few yards. The rain splattered on the ground. It was a reasonable trail. Wide enough for a couple of people to walk along at side by side, but still with some rough patches. Exposed rocks and roots. Patches of moss in places, and depressions that might become boggy puddles if the rain didn’t let up.
He’d worked on a couple of trails with Targell and some of the volunteers, but not this one. They’d replaced some of the wooden steps on the Jefferson Trail near the far corner of the park. A good afternoon with saws and sledgehammers and packing earth. Wright had slept more soundly that night than he had for months. Maybe even years.
“What are you doing down there?” Targell said. “We need to get going. Need to phone someone.”
“Good idea,” Wright said.
At least with the cell tower right there, they had good coverage. Plenty of bars.
He took another couple of steps.
Couldn’t see anything.
Why was the pickup there? What had been in the tray?
They’d gone on foot. Left behind a backpack.
Three ways they could have gone. Up the set of steps toward Crater Top. Back down the roadway. Or down here.
If they’d been walking up the roadway, Wright and Targell would have seen them.
Question was why were they here?
Had they perhaps bagged a deer and loaded it into the truck. Maybe headed on uphill to find a turnaround spot. Maybe the tailgate had come open. Maybe in their excitement about their kill, they hadn’t latched it properly.
The truck could have bounced over a rock and the deer might just have slid on out.
Landed farther back along the road. Rolled off the edge, or up against the bank.
Maybe they’d driven on a hundred yards before they realized.
Except that Targell had said there was that turnout two hundred yards on. Wright had even seen it on their way up. A little aberration in the hill. A wider part of the road. Easy spot to turn even a big vehicle like that Dodge.
So they’d caught the deer beyond the turnout and figured there might be another farther on. Maybe even at the top of the hill. Easier to go on than to back up.
Lost the deer.
Wright walked back up to the roadway.
“This sure is buckets of rain,” Targell said. He had his own long coat on. The drops beaded and ran down in rivulets, dripping from the lower cuff.
Wright took a few steps along the road. Downhill. He peered into the rain. It turned the road into a haze. All the trees and gravel and sky just blending into shades of gray. Moving and ghostly. The air smelled clean and fresh.
Diluted blood dripped from the Dodge’s tailgate.
“What are you doing down there?” Targell said.
“Trying to figure this out.” Wright stepped back.
“Getting far with your figuring?”
“How about we just sit in the car,” Targell said. “At least we’ll be out of the rain.”
“You go,” Wright said. “Give me a couple of minutes.”
Targell smiled. “At least get your coat.”
Wright patted his sodden shirt. “Too late for that.”
“I’ll wait for you if they show up and leave,” Targell said. “I’m nice like that.”
“You are,” Wright said. “And I appreciate it.”
Wright turned and stepped down the path.
Charlie stuck his spade into the ground again. The sound had a kind of finality to it. A grim finality, as his mother would say, talking about her friends receiving end of life care.
He put his boot on the spade’s upper edge. Put weight on it. The blade slid farther in.
He turned the handle. Broke the soil up. Now that he was a little deeper, he was striking more roots and rocks. Half an earthworm. Even with the rain washing through, the earth still stank. Rich with rot and mineral smells.
He lifted the load out.
So far he’d dug down a half a foot over an area of maybe two square feet. Piled it up next to the hole.
His head ran calculations. As if he was figuring out the carpet required for a bedroom with a fireplace and a step. A hundred and twenty square feet. Extra cutting and stapling time for the step and fireplace. Give them three prices, premium, medium and low. Axminister or cut loop or something cheaper. Consider which kinds of batons to use.
Start with the premium prices. Talk them through that, then mention the other options, if they needed to save money.
More often than not they went with medium when they might have gone low.
This was going to be eighteen square feet, more or less. Three bodies needing holes. Six feet long by a foot wide, on average.
Figure just dig one hole, though. Put the three of them in.
“Move faster,” the guy who spoke said.
Charlie nodded. Stuck the spade in again.
How could he be thinking measurements when he was in this predicament?
Suze sat nearby, back up against a tree, knees to her chest. Rain bouncing from her hiking raincoat. The other guy standing back and keeping watch on her.
The body lay a couple of yards away, sprawled on the tarpaulin. The rain was washing away the blood.
A young woman. Maybe eighteen or twenty. Face down. Naked. Stripped of all her dignity.
Charlie kept digging.
Six feet down. Eighteen square feet by six feet. That made over a hundred cubic meters of earth.
To shift by himself.
Not how he’d imagined his day would go.
He dug the blade in again. That grim finality sound again.
Taking a breath, he leaned on the handle.
“You should have brought more spades,” he said. “Would have made much faster work of this.”
“Just dig, jerk. You’ve made this harder for us already. Dig and make it easier on everyone.”
“How deep?” Charlie said. Stupid question.
Not six feet. Maybe two. Hardly mattered to them.
“You dig,” the guy said, sighting along the rifle’s barrel at Charlie. “You’ll know how deep when I tell you to stop.”
Through the rain, Wright heard something. Something out of place.
He was right at the edge of the trial. Just at the blood-dripping open tailgate of the Dodge. Two yards from Targell.
The rain set up a constant hiss. Sometimes an odd drip-splash sound like water draining from a downpipe and falling into a half-full rain barrel. The wind shifted everything too. Sometimes pulling the sound back, sometimes strengthening it.
There was birdsong too. The avians unperturbed by the squall. Continuing on as if it was still balmy sunshine. Twittering and tweets and squawks. Some longer trills of all over the scale songs.
And then this other sound.
A kind of a swish. Swish-rattle.
Not a bird. Not an animal.
“What’re you doing now?” Targell said.
“Wait in the car,” Wright said. “I’m going to check on something.”
“Whatever you say. Don’t take long.”
Wright started down the path.
The sound wouldn’t have bothered him except for the blood in the tray of the abandoned pickup.
He took a few steps along the trail. The rain eased as the trees caught it. The drops became fewer, but bigger. Caught on the leaves and tossed out again by the wind.
He took a few more steps.
A few more steps.
From behind came the rusty clunk of the RAV’s door closing. Targell getting in out of the elements.
It didn’t repeat.
Wright took a few more steps.
Had it been his imagination?
A few more steps.
If they’d brought something down this way, all evidence of their passage was gone or vanishing fast. Rain. A CSI’s worst enemy.
A few more steps.
He was getting close to thirty yards down the track now. Gray and gloomy.
Ahead on the trail, on the right, there were some broken branches. As if some hiker had pushed through to toilet themselves.
Still, he continued down to take a look.
Yep, that’s what it seemed like. Broken and bent fern branches. Footprints in the mud and moss. As if someone had gone through and relieved themselves. More than one kind of footprint.
Maybe a popular spot as a bathroom.
Wright looked back up the trail.
The rain was heading toward waterfall levels now. Loud and pounding.
Wright looked along the break through the forest. Looked back along the trail again. He could just see the edge of the Dodge’s open tailgate.
Hunters. With a kill. Lost it somehow.
Simplest explanations are usually the right explanations.
He took another look through the informal bathroom access. Could be something. Could be nothing.
Hunters. That was all.
He turned and headed on up the trail. The rain eased for a moment. The birdsong became clearer again.
And another sound.
Charlie’s back ached.
He knew this ache. This was the ache carpet-layers his age started living with. Years on their knees jamming carpet into corners. Years of lifting the rolls off the racks and off the trucks. Years of twisting and tugging and pulling and hammering.
But today, it was from digging.
The spade bit into the earth. Grim finality. He turned it. Twisted. Tugged. Lifted away the stony load. It clicked and ticked and rattled on the spade’s blade.
“He’s going too slow,” the guy who hadn’t spoken said. He had a nasal twang to his voice. Gawin tou slaw. Looked like his nose had actually been broken at some point. A nasty bend in it.
“We got all day,” the first one said. “This rain is good cover.”
The rain was lousy. Soaking and cold. Some of the spadesful felt like they were more water than soil.
“We need to hurry him up,” broken nose said. He stepped toward Suze. Pointed his rifle at her. The muzzle a foot from her face.
“Thing is,” Charlie said. “You want fast, or you want good?”
The sales training kicking in.
“We need fast and deep,” broken nose said.
“See,” Charlie said. “I can just go real quick, diving the spade in and tossing loads out. But I’ll wear out faster and you’ll have a messy hole. Let me work it, concentrate on the sides, concentrate on getting a good spadesful, you’ll get there faster in the end. Thing with this rain too, it’s washing the dirt back in.”
Charlie drove the spade in again.
Something in the hole cracked.
Different to the other sounds.
He twisted at the handle. Tugged and lifted.
Something in the pile.
Dirty white. Jagged on one end where the spade had gone through.
This wasn’t the first time they’d used this spot.
Wright turned. A soughing of the wind ran through the trees. The rain eased momentarily, but the sudden wind threw down more drops.
The sound came again.
He went along the trail. Toward the spot he’d first assumed to be where people were using the bathroom.
Had to think of the simplest explanation.
Even with a pickup on the road back there. Blood in the tray.
There were multiple footprints. Washing away in the easing rain. A constant trickle made its way down the trail.
Wright pushed through the broken fronds. Followed along the obvious route. A footprint here. More broken branches there. Crushed grass and moss.
Ten yards along he stopped. Listened.
The rain continued to ease. The forest grew quieter. The air was clean and rich. The kind of thing the companies that made air freshener aerosols tried to capture.
Still not clear.
Wright took another step. Got a glimpse of something red and low. To his left. Mostly hidden by foliage.
He took another step. Ducked under a branch and took another step. Stood close to a trunk.
The red was a raincoat. Water still running from it.
A woman. She was staring ahead. Bleak and tired.
Wright moved around the trunk. To the left. Took another step and another.
Fifteen yards off now. Plenty of foliage between him and the woman.
Her head jerked.
Turned to face him. Eyes wide.
Wright lifted his hand to wave. Maybe she was hurt.
Blood in the pickup’s tray.
She shook her head. Looked to her right. Looked at him again.
Lifted her right hand. Right in front of her face. Flat. Facing him.
Wright nodded. Stayed where he was.
She turned curled her ring finger and pinky in against her palm. Kept her index and middle fingers straight.
Put her thumb straight up.
Pulled down. Parallel to her index finger. Tapped the knuckle.
Did it twice.
Then she pointed. Off to her left.
“Hey!” someone shouted. “What’s she doing?”
Charlie stared at the bone.
Maybe just an animal. A wild boar maybe. They were in the woods around here. Probably.
Maybe a deer or an elk. Who knew?
He tipped the spade’s load into the pile at the side of the hole.
The rain was thinning out now. Not that it made much difference. Water was still running across the ground. Into the hole.
He looked at the guy with the gun.
“You’re going to kill us too?” Charlie said.
“You play nice,” the guy said. “Do your job, you get to go home. Don’t ever come back to Crater Top again. Don’t even come back to Frobisher County. In fact, might even be worth considering moving state. You could—”
“Hey!” broken nose shouted. “What’s she doing?”
Charlie looked over.
Broken nose had gone right up close to Suze. Had the gun’s muzzle practically right in her face.
Suze had both hands up. Surrender position. Straight out of the old west. Out of all the cop movies. Hands where I can see them.
Charlie took a step around the hole. His boot jammed into the pile of earth. It shifted. He slipped.
Regained his balance.
The first guy was looking away. Facing Suze and broken nose.
No one was looking at Charlie.
He could swing the spade. Smack the guy in the back of the head.
Except, he had no idea about brawling. He might miss. Might hit wrong.
Inevitably he would startle the other guy.
The one with the gun in Suze’s face.
Finger on the trigger.
Be a good idea not to startle him.
Charlie stayed where he was.
“Easy,” he said. “She’s just sitting there.”
“She was doin’ somethin’ weird with her hands.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mason,” the first guy said. “We’re almost through here.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You’re getting jumpy. That’s understandable. We didn’t expect anyone to be out here today. Not with the weather.”
“I was going to dig the hole anyhow,” broken nose—Mason—said. “Easy enough to dig it a little bigger she doesn’t behave.”
“Mason,” the first guy said.
“I’m almost done,” Charlie said. “We’ll get out of here. We’re not even from Frobisher. We’re way down in Alden. Never coming back here. That’s for sure.”
Mason looked over at Charlie.
“Get digging,” Mason said. “Or I am going to shoot her. Understand?”
“Got it,” Charlie said.
He stepped back to the hole.
The first guy turned to face him.
“You got to understand,” the guy said. “We got ourselves in a predicament here. A real bad situation.”
Charlie drove the spade in again.
“Real bad for her, huh?” Charlie said. “Your friend there on the tarp.”
The guy rubbed his chin. One hand on the rifle.
Easy enough to swing the spade and knock it out of his hand.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “So you can kind of understand this situation. Bad for her, bad for us. Can’t make it any better for her, but we sure can make it better for ourselves.”
“Right,” Charlie said.
He stood on the blade’s edge and pushed it down. Twisted the handle.
More bones. A thin chain. Dirty, but obvious. Jewelry.
With a grubby silver cross.
Definitely not wildlife bones.
Wright crouched and watched.
Around him the last drips of rain pattered and sang through the forest. The kind of sound that meditation musicians would use to create background music. The gentle sound of rain. Good for yoga. Good for gathering your thoughts. Good for imagining yourself back out with nature.
Not here, though.
Not with what was going on. None of this would help anyone’s peace of mind.
After the shout, the guy had stepped forward. Pointed a rifle right at the woman in the red coat.
Some back and forth discussion.
The woman. She didn’t say a thing. Two other men.
Two men with guns. One with a spade.
Digging a hole.
Wright moved again.
Stepping carefully. Avoiding the branches. Watching where he put his feet.
Keeping back in the foliage.
The woman had seen him. Easy enough for the guys with guns to see him too. With the rain just about done, there was less masking sound.
Just a squall. Passing through quickly.
Thing with guns was, you always wanted them away from the civilians. Forget about the gunman for now. Forget about everything save for putting distance and objects between the innocents and the crazies.
Or, putting himself there.
Not that any captain he’d had would ever had officially suggested that.
Wright moved again.
Got in behind a tree.
The guys were more interested in their argument than looking out for anyone else.
“Bad for her,” one of them said. “Bad for us. Can’t make it any better for her, but we sure can make it better for ourselves.”
“Right,” the guy with the spade said.
Not with them. With the woman in the red raincoat.
Were they the owners of that green backpack left behind up on the road’s edge?
The guy with the spade dug it into the ground. There was a hole there. Water running into it.
Out in the woods.
A hostage. Probably two hostages.
Yes. The guy with the spade was dressed like a hiker. Like the woman, but without a jacket.
The guys with the guns were in jeans and light jackets and tee shirts. Like motor mechanics or truck drivers or forestry workers.
Actually, like Wright himself.
Craning his head, Wright spotted a fifth person.
A woman. Naked. Face down. Lying on a gray tarp.
Blood on her.
So. Not a deer.
He kind of had to put a stop to this. Owed it to Targell. Owed it to this couple, though Wright hadn’t even spoken to them.
The trick would be not getting himself shot in the process.
A flurry of wind came through the woods. Shivering the leaves. Showering raindrops from them. The movement hissed for a moment.
A drop landed just on Wright’s neck. Made its way down his back.
Uncomfortable, but it hardly mattered. He was we enough already.
“Ten minutes,” one of the guys said. “We need to move it.”
“Make him dig faster,” the other one said. The one holding the gun on the woman.
“I can’t dig faster,” the guy with the spade said. “I’m worn out. You were going to dig anyway, right? If you’re in such a hurry, come dig yourself.”
“I’ll shoot her, how about that?”
“Then where’s your leverage?” the woman said. “You have to keep the threat of shooting me open?”
“Yeah, Mason,” the first one said. “Ease back. I’ll cover them both. Come take the spade for five minutes. Get us deeper.”
Wright stepped back, smiling.
He was getting a better picture now. Good for them. The couple.
Ambushed. Kidnapped. Forced to dig. But they weren’t standing for it too much. At least, not cowering and curled up in terrified little balls.
The pair of gunmen kept arguing.
Mason. Wright didn’t have the other name.
Wright plotted a route.
He had to skirt around. Come back from the other side. From uphill. Where he was now was far too exposed.
Grumping and complaining, Mason came and took the spade.
It meant just one gun in someone’s hands.
Mason set his gun upright against a tree trunk. Started digging.
Wright followed his route. Moved around.
It was easy to track his way. He just kept the mutterings and complaints of Mason on his right. Made a long arc.
Useful. It put Wright on one side of the men, and the couple on the other side.
Like a line. Wright. Gunmen. Hostages.
It meant that when Wright interrupted, the gun would be facing him. Aimed away from the couple.
Not as good as an object or distance, but still useful.
“Is this Meredith I’m digging up here?” Mason said. “Good grief, Pearce, could you not have found another spot? Really?”
“We got a spot,” Pearce said. “We know it works.”
“Didn’t work so well this time.”
A swirl of the breeze swept by Wright, carrying the odors of earth and decay. A corpse?
Not the woman on the tarp. Another one.
These guys had done this before.
What was going on here?
Wright stepped on a dry branch. It snapped, breaking in two.
He stopped. Waiting for them to realize. Stayed as still as he could.
“Hear that?” Mason said.
“Wind,” Pearce said. “Keep digging.”
“You going to dig too?”
“Sure. Couple of minutes, I’ll take over.”
The spade bit into the earth. Swish.
Mason turned the handle. Lifted the spadesful and tipped it. Rattle. The load fell onto the pile.
Wright came around to a position that just about suited him.
Almost directly behind Mason’s back. Pearce at ten o’clock, five yards beyond. The couple a few yards on at eleven o’clock.
The dead woman on the tarp at nine o’clock. Near Pearce.
Wright waited until Mason had tipped off another spadesful.
As the spade dug in again, Wright hustled through the wet branches into the clearing.
“Glad to see you all,” he said. “Can’t tell you how long I’ve been lost out here.”
They all turned and stared.
Pearce didn’t even raise his rifle.
Charlie stared dumbfounded at the new arrival.
The guy was big. As wet and bedraggled as Charlie felt.
Charlie was sitting next to Suze. Her face was implacable. Probably coping with this whole situation better than he was. At least he’d had something to do.
She’d been sitting here with a gun in her face.
“Can’t tell you how long I’ve been lost out here,” the guy said. Sounded like he was from way out west. Soft accent.
Charlie wanted to wave him away. Wanted to shout at him to get out.
These guys had already killed people.
One on the tarp. One already in the ground.
Who knew how many more.
Suze put her hand on Charlie’s elbow. Tugged.
Wait, she mouthed.
Both Mason and Pearce were now facing the new arrival.
“I was coming up the trail back there,” the guy said. He turned away from them all. Pointed off into the woods.
Pearce took a step toward him. Rifle still pointed down. Forty-five degrees. Would be real quick to lift it to point at the new guy.
“Thought I knew where I was,” the guy said. “But I must’ve got sidetracked. Stepped off the path to take a leak and never could find the path again.”
He gave a goofy smile. Took another step into the small clearing.
“Figured there was the road somewhere near the top. Thought it would be easier to just keep on heading up.” Now he turned uphill and waved vaguely that way. “You know find the road. Walk back down that. Pretty hard to lose a road I think. Not like some of these trails. Get kind of overgrown.”
The fool took another step. He was real close to Mason now.
Couldn’t the guy see what was going on? Guns. The spade. The grave.
The corpse lying there on the tarp.
Too panicked about being lost. Too excited about finding people.
“Head straight on up that way,” Pearce said. “You’ll hit the road in no time.”
The guy nodded.
Took another step toward Mason.
“Looks like you’re all having a party out here,” the guy said.
Mason had tensed.
Charlie looked into the hole.
There was a skull there now. Right at the side.
A chill ran through him.
This guy was dead. They were all dead.
Mason lifted the spade.
“Best get on your way, mister,” he said.
“No,” the guy said. “No, I don’t think so.”
He darted forward at Mason.
The spade came up fast.
Obviously it was a grave they were digging here in the little clearing. A body. A spade. A long, narrow hole.
Bones already in the hole. Reusing the same spot.
Stupid really. If they’d already buried someone here, they should never come back. Not ever.
Shouldn’t even ever come back to the park. Maybe even they should leave the county or the state altogether.
Wright had watched Mason with the spade.
The guy had set his gun aside. Not that a rifle was much use for close combat. It became a distraction.
Really, in that situation, you should use the gun as a club. Most people would forget that. Try to aim and shoot.
By which time your assailant was on you. You got knocked senseless before you even aimed, much less pulled the trigger.
So, really, it was to Mason’s advantage that he had the spade. More obvious kind of implement to use as a clubbing weapon. Even as a slicing weapon.
What he should have done, as Wright launched at him, was step back and just swing the spade up into Wright’s abdomen. Might have broken the skin. Spilled Wright’s intestines. At the very least, it would have winded him.
Trouble was, Mason didn’t react like that.
He thought about it too much.
He tried to sweep the spade in from the left.
Would have even been better to have just dropped the spade and use his fists. Too much focus on the weapon and less on the nature of the attack.
Wright jammed his left foot into the ground. Slowed himself. Arced his body so that the spade swept on through. Right to left.
He slammed his right fist hard into Mason’s own abdomen. Just below his ribs.
Drove the air out of him. Bruised his organs.
Already Wright had his right elbow coming up. Fast.
Mason bent forward.
Collected Wright’s elbow with his cheek.
Pain lanced through Wright’s arm. That was going to hurt for a week.
It was worse for Mason.
He went down fast.
Straight into the hole.
Slapped into the wet mud. Face down.
Wright kept moving.
Not so much interested in Mason. More so in his gun.
Leaning up against the tree. Three feet away.
As Wright grabbed for it, still moving, he heard the crack of a gunshot.
Bark exploded from the tree. Right by the gun. Chunks struck his face. Stung.
He stumbled. Got his hand on the weapon.
It slipped out of his grasp.
As another gunshot rang out, he fell behind the tree.
“Gonna have to kill you now,” Pearce called from across the clearing.
Wright lay panting. Facing the sky. Some rock jabbing into his back.
“Makes no difference to me,” Pearce said.
He fired again. The shot whistling off into the forest.
“One body or two. Or three. Or four. They all just go in the same hole.”
Wright took a breath.
Pearce was striding slowly across the clearing.
The tree was just there.
The rifle’s strap hanging down.
Almost within reach.
A red-headed bird alighted on a branch above Wright. The bird cocked its head at him, watching with a weary eye. A robin. There were plenty of them in the woods.
Still around, despite the gunshots.
The forest had gone quiet. Slowly the birdsong was returning.
Wright squirmed around. Stuck his head around the right side of the tree. Watching Pearce approach.
Reached for the rifle strap around to his left.
Pearce focused on him. Had his own weapon half-raised.
Knew he had the advantage. Knew he could take his time.
Wasn’t going to waste any more shots.
“I figured you waren’t lost,” Pearce said. “Figured you’re maybe a ranger out here.”
“Not a ranger,” Wright said. “Just a volunteer.” He pulled his head back. Watched Pearce with just one eye.
“I appreciate the work you people do,” the woman in the raincoat said.
Pearce glanced her way.
“Hush,” the man with her said.
“It’s very rewarding,” Wright said. “Glad to know that it’s appreciated.”
Feeling with his left hand, he couldn’t find the strap.
“Cut the chatter,” Pearce said.
He reached the edge of the hole.
Peered down at Mason.
“Get up,” Pearce said.
No response from Mason.
He’d fallen face down in the mud. He’d gotten a nasty blow to his face.
Maybe unconscious. Maybe drowning in a couple of inches of water.
Might be worth mentioning. Maybe.
“Hey,” Wright said. “Has he got his face in the water?”
The clearing grew brighter. Some break in the clouds letting the sun through.
“Yuh,” Pearce said. “Thanks.”
He stepped down into the hole.
“Don’t go getting any ideas. I’ma gonna shoot them you try anything.”
“I won’t go getting any ideas,” Wright said.
Fact was, he’d already had the idea.
And it came to fruition as he felt the strap on the rifle.
Pearce shifted around in the hole.
Fifteen feet off, the couple sat against the tree trunk staring. He was wide-eyed. She seemed calmer.
Pearce had the rifle trained on them. He moved his feet.
The robin darted around the trunk above Wright’s head.
He tugged delicately on the other rifle strap.
“Come on,” Pearce said. “Mason?”
Could already be too late. He’d been in the hole maybe a minute already. A conscious man underwater can hold his breath a good long time. Maybe even four minutes if he’s well practiced.
An unconscious man is just going to keep breathing. The ancient hindbrain keeps things going. Keeps the heart beating. Keeps the lungs inflating and deflating.
Though perhaps Mason would have spasmed if he’d drawn up a lungful of water. Surely there would be some reaction, unconscious or not.
Wright tugged on the rifle strap.
It jammed up.
He lifted it. Felt the weight of the rifle shift.
Pearce crouched into the hole. His rifle barrel came up. Rested on the hole’s lip.
Aimed straight at the tree partially concealing Wright.
Wright tugged on the rifle strap again.
“Mason?” Pearce said. “Come on buddy. Get up out of the mud.”
Wright got the rifle moving. Drew it around. It tipped.
The stock clunked on a root.
Pearce’s head snapped up.
“You gone killed him!” he yelled.
Pearce burst up from the hole. He fired wildly.
The gunshots echoed through the forest.
The bullets whistled by Wright. One cratered the earth just at his feet.
He turned. Tugged on the rifle’s strap. It tangled around his wrist.
Pearce came around the tree.
Stared at Wright.
“You know what happens to people go killing my family?” Pearce said.
“Buy them dinner to thank them?” Wright said. “Gotta be better off, huh?”
Wright kept tugging the rifle around. Got his hand on the stock.
“Only just met you mister, but I sure am going to miss your sense of humor.”
Pearce sighted along the barrel.
No more wild shots.
This was going to be calm and precise.
Wright looked back along the barrel himself. Straight into furious, animal eyes.
Wright was twisted around. Lying on the ground. A bad position.
The rifle strap was around his wrist.
He tugged it around.
He had maybe a half a second before Pearce fired.
Wright could see the rifling along the barrel. Some trick of the light. The dark of the overcast with the shards of sun breaking through. Reflecting of some leaves perhaps. Just enough that he could see into the rifle’s barrel.
The name rifle came from those very structures inside the barrel. Really it was just a firearm. A weapon. A gun. The long barrel made for better accuracy over distance, and the machined helical scoring inside the barrel gave the bullet a spin. That improved accuracy too.
A simple matter of physics. A spinning top stays upright. A spinning bullet stays on target.
Hardly necessary, though, over the three or four feet Pearce stood from him. Less the foot or so of the barrel’s length. Hardly necessary with Pearce upright and Wright lying on the ground.
Pearce could close his eyes and still hit him.
Wright jerked his left arm up. The other rifle lurched. Smacked against Pearce’s leg.
Startled, Pearce stepped to the side.
Wright brought his legs up. Exploded from the ground.
Immediately all the advantage of the rifle vanished. Accuracy. Stopping power. The spin of the bullet.
Because Wright was beyond the line of fire.
He sped under the muzzle.
If Pearce fired again, the bullet was just going to join all the other wild shots vanishing into the woods.
Wright tackled him.
Drove him back into the tree.
Wright jerked his knee up into Pearce’s solar plexus. Pearce doubled over. Collapsed onto the ground. Coughed and spluttered.
Wright ripped the rifle from Pearce’s hands. Ejected all the cartridges. The spun away, glittering in the shafts of sunlight.
Pearce was still gasping. Spluttering.
Wright went to the hole. Pearce must have tipped Mason over. The guy was muddy and drenched, but still breathing.
Wright tucked Pearce’s rifle under his arm and untangled the other rifle strap from his wrist. He ejected all the ammunition from that too.
“What happened?” the man who’d been digging said.
“Nothing,” Wright said. “Have you got a phone there?”
The woman stood. “I have a satellite phone,” she said.
Wright smiled. With the cell tower right up the hill here, a satellite phone was redundant. But it didn’t matter.”
“Call the cops,” Wright said. “Tell them what happened.”
She brought out a big phone with an aerial. Like something surplus from the army.
The man stood. Came over to Wright.
“You just…” The man didn’t finish his sentence. Just stared at Mason and Pearce.
“I did,” Wright said. “Come on, I’ve got a friend up the hill. He can help us out.”
Back up at the RAV4, Jim Targell was wide-eyed and gaping. He’d heard all the shooting. He’d already called the cops.
“What happened?” he said. “You have rifles!”
The roadway was slick and wet and the trees rustled in the wind. A pair of small dark birds darted around, one chasing the other. Dogfighting over some morsel. A caterpillar or moth or chitinous insect.
The forest didn’t care.
“Couple of guys trying to bury a body,” Wright said. “Found Charlie and Suze here and figured they could help dig the hole.”
“And where are these guys now?” Targell said, staring back along the trail.
Wright explained. Tied up with the rifle straps and some long thermal underwear Suze always carried on her hikes.
“Quality material,” Suze said. “They won’t be getting untied anytime soon.”
Charlie smiled at her. Took her hand.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No trouble,” Wright said. “I’m going to move their truck and you all can get by.”
He’d taken the keys from Pearce’s jeans pocket.
“I’ll give you a ride down,” Targell said. “You can come with us.”
“I’ll wait for the cops,” Wright said. “Give them a statement or whatever help they need.”
He got in the big Dodge and started it up. Backed it fast. Down to the turnaround. Put it right at the edge.
Targell was along a moment later, with Charlie and Suze in the RAV. Targell wound down his window. From far off through the woods came the vague sound of sirens.
“Right from when you arrived, I figured you weren’t just some laborer guy,” Targell said. “Glad to have you along.”
“Us too,” Charlie said.
“Can’t thank you enough,” Suze said.
“We’ll buy you dinner. Later. In town. You are back in town right? Clawville”
“We’re at the motel,” Suze said. “Sunshine court.”
“Nice diner a couple of doors along.”
Wright smiled and nodded. “Eight sounds pretty fine to me. I appreciate it.”
Always good to let people say thanks. Made them feel better. And who was he to turn down a free meal.
Targell gave a wry headshake and leaned forward through the window gap.
“Still expect you at work first thing,” he said. “We’ve got that damaged bridge deck to look at down on the Feathered Friends Trail, and there’s a whole bunch of bags of cement you need to haul out.”
“I’ll be there,” Wright said.
Of course. That’s what he was getting paid for.
He stepped back and Targell wound up the window and eased the little vehicle on down the road. Charlie looked through the back window and waved.
Wright waved back.
A brown bird darted down and landed on the roof of the big Dodge. The bird chirped at Wright.
“Yeah,” Wright said. “The forest doesn’t care.”
And he leaned back against the Dodge’s fender to wait for the cops.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed “The Forest Doesn’t Care”. For more intrigue check out the Cole Wright page on the website. And feel free to drop me a line.