The Sunny Side Up stunk of french fries and menu mildew. Early risers filled the rustic diner with hikers eager for hotcakes, cheese grits and the Bravocado special. A pair of veteran waitresses sped amid tables, checking the wall clock between orders. In an hour the seats would be empty. This was the last place to get a bite before driving into the Hitchiti nature park to hike, fish or play. Ian and April sat at a corner booth, its slashed cushions spewing stuffing.
“Everyone is capable of something horrible,” Ian suggested. “given certain circumstance. It’s far more practical to think that a desperate con on the loose did this then, well, I’m not going to even say it.”
April shrugged. It wasn’t that she disagreed with Ian as much as she wanted to wilder his pragmatic outlook on, well, everything. In their five years as partners, she’d never once been able to coax the old park ranger into indulging implausible ideas. April remembered the stories her grandmother told her. The Muskogean feared something in these woods, and it wasn’t until last week’s homicide that April recalled the childhood tales.
“I’m not arguing intent,” April asserted after sipping burnt coffee. “I want to know how someone got the remains so damn high? Do you know how strong you’d have to be to get a body in a tree? Like, really strong.”
Ian shook his head, a half smirk curled along his lips. His peppered hair was mostly gray and a heavy crease cut into his forehead. He hesitated, waiting for the approaching waitress to serve breakfast. He stabbed at his banana oatmeal with a spoon once it landed and waited until the waitress withdrew before continuing their conversation.
“You think Bigfoot did it?” he taunted, brows knitted together.
“I think I’ve met safe doors less stubborn than you.”
“That’s compliment in my books” he bragged, stealing a piece of April’s bacon. “Tolerance for the absurd is reserved for preschool teachers and writers.”
April rolled her eyes. “Some people just can’t see the truth.” She shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth, chewing as she stared out of the glass window separating them from the parking lot. Every so often the nature preserve would suffer a hiking injury, brush fire or snake bite, but nothing like this. Since the incident, federal authorities had pressured April’s small department for resolution, sending in experts in to help. When there wasn’t a lick of evidence, they blamed Hank Wadley, the convicted murder that escaped from state prison three weeks ago. There was no proof he was in the area, but the rangers were urged to lift every stone.
Ian and April sat silently while they ate their food. When the check came, Ian stole the bill, handing the waitress his card. April feigned a grudge before thanking him.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Ian grunted. “I’m buttering you up.”
“I was thinking we’d go north today and check out that old architect site atop the summit. It’ll be a bit of a walk.”
“You bring your boots?”
“They’re in the trunk.”
“Good. Think of it this way, you’ll be fit as lion for your wedding.”
“You wearing a dress?”
“No, she is.”
“Can’t you both?”
April’s eyes bored through Ian. “No.”
“Well,” Ian nodded to the returned waitress, signing the check, “you’ll look like a million bucks no matter what you’re wearing after today.”
“Maybe I’ll wear my uniform?”
The pair exchanged stares before the damn came loose and they burst into laughter.
It was nearly eight o’clock when the rangers made it to their patroller. The off-road vehicle was due for a tune up, and sputtered as it climbed up the peak. April glanced at herself from the passenger mirror. Her black hair braided into a tight bun, highlighting her windburn. Her eyes bruised from lack of sleep and were framed by crows feet. April thought she looked older than she should for thirty.
The ride took nearly twenty minutes. Ian parked the patroller off of Patron’s Peak. They exited the car, staring at the canvas of pines clinging along the cliffside. Most visitors would be in awe, but the recent homicide had a way of garnishing the woods with grave flowers. Ian straightened his back, stretched and then crowned himself with his mountie’s hat. He checked his sidearm before peeking at April’s holster.
“You clean it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Did it last night. Rebecca hates guns, so I had to go outside. I’m like seventy-percent sure it has all of its parts.”
“Come on then smart ass.”
April hated guns as much as her fiancé, but she’d never admit it. It seemed like you were required to pepper your eggs with gunpowder if you were in law enforcement, even if you were just a park ranger. For her, the pistol meant that should she be presented with a situation that required it, she’d be forced to decide if her life was more important than someone else’s. Her Grandma didn’t raise April that way. Every earthly guest had their place. You should treat, not shoot, a broken man.
The brush was thick and the path emaciated. April began to sweat early into their trek. The pair huffed up the cliffside until it thinned into a game trail. Branches clawed at the rangers, trying to pierce through their sturdy coats. April spotted cougar scat and pointed it out to Ian. He flipped his holster’s safety clasp in case he needed to arm himself in a hurry. The deer were thin in the area, and cougars weren’t against making exceptions to their diet. Still the rangers pushed on, not taking a break until the white noise of Bloodstone Falls greeted them.
The red clay clinging to the waterfall’s crevices bled scarlet into the basin. It was iron oxide that gave the soil its hue, but the First People saw it as a curse. This is where the ancient ones buried the dead, and archeologists found cave drawings to prove it. To this day the Muskogean forbid travel near the cliffs. April separated herself from the old ways as a teen, but recognized the sacredness that came with the haunting falls. She took in the landscape, studying the curves and color. As she did, something caught her eye near the fountain pool.
April took a closer look. There were dull scars weathered from years of erosion. Still, April could make out the outline of crudely etched men, birds and stags in a dark ink. Alongside a depiction of oaks stood a lone man as tall as the trees. April didn’t know if it were just her imagination, but she wouldn’t let that stop her from using the cave art as an argument.
“Ian,” April called out, “now you have to believe me.” She froze when her eyes met his. Ian was crouched near the carved rapids ten steps, two logs and a boulder away. His nostrils flared as he stared near the waterline. “What’s wrong?”
Ian waved April over. She trudged the distance and peered over his shoulder. Ian used a stick to fish out a severed human finger from a rock pit, its fingernail caked with dirt. April thought it might be a gag item until she spotted muscle and bone. She swallowed the spur in her throat.
“Shit,” she sputtered. “Think there was an accident?”
“Up here?” Ian huffed as he rolled the thumb onto the mud. “Nah. Anything called in?”
April reached for her belt radio, pressing the plastic button. “Patrol to dispatch.”
The crackling of a static laced voice replied. “Go for dispatch.”
“This is Officer Red Wolf,” she confirmed, her voice calm and steady. “We’re on the site of a possible crime scene. Finger found. Any reports of injuries near the summit?”
“That’s a negative,” dispatch replied. “Only record was last night. A camper reported a missing German Shepherd. Six years, seventy-pounds, goes by the name Rufus.”
April ignored the news. “No injuries?”
“That’s a big old negative Red Wolf,” the dispatcher joked. April looked to Ian, who was collecting the thumb with a handkerchief.
“We’re going to have a look around,” April spoke into the receiver, “but you may want to reach out to Fed. We’ll bring the finger down with us.”
“That’s two thumbs up” dispatch jested. April shook her head.
“Dispatch sounds bored,” April scoffed, “but no report of injury.”
Ian tightened the wrapped the handkerchief into a ball then placed it in his breast pocket. “Someone is up here with us. Look.”
April followed Ian’s stare. There was a large indistinct footprint. The webbed traction grooves on the person’s soles weren’t for hiking. They were simple like a baker’s shoe. April scratched her head.
“Loafers?” she asked.
“Prison crocs. Hank Wadley might be vacationing in the great outdoors after all.”
“They look pretty fresh. We should comb the immediate area while we wait for backup. Looks like our day just got a lot longer.”
“I hate you.”
The pair followed the prints east into thick brush. The forest carpeted the earth with discard leaves. Ian and April tried to follow broken brush, but lost the trail after a half mile. Ian studied a mangled fern slumped at the end of their pursuit. There were raw green lesions. Ian fingered the fractured fern wing.
“It looks like something hurried down the slope,” Ian deadpanned, “but I can’t be sure. You mind heading back to the falls to call this in? Try to be quiet. I think he’s close.”
“What are you going to?”
“The tiger stalks best alone,” he bobbed his brows. April knew that wasn’t true. Ian had an aching knee and depth perception issues that were only corrected by the glasses he never wore. Every so often though, Ian liked to relive his service days by doing something stupid. April tolerated it. She assumed they’d lost the convicts trail about seventy yards ago, and that Ian would return to the falls letdown and frustrated.
“You have ten minutes tough guy,” April stressed. “Then I’m shouting so loud that dispatch will hear me from HQ.”
“Fine. Call the dogs in.”
April followed the trail back to Bloodstone Falls. She rested on a flat stone, cupped the radio’s speaker and called in Ian’s findings. Her feet ached.
“Patrol to dispatch, come in.”
The radio screeched briefly from interference. “Go for dispatch.”
“This is Red Wolf,” she spoke low, rubbing her ankle. “We have reason to believe that Hank Wadley may be held up near Bloodstone Falls. We found shoe print and broken brush in addition to the thumb.”
“Copy that Red Wolf. Reed and Lietz are already in route. I’m still on the phone with the feds.”
“Dispatch, Callahan and I will continue to secure the area. Give us updates when you have them.”
“Copy that Red Wolf.”
April clipped her radio back on her belt. She unzipped her coat before retrieving the half empty water bottle from her inside pocket. April sipped conservatively, rationing in case she was trapped up here all shift. For the first time in the day, she took the forest in without fearing it. She scanned the horizon. As her eyes read nature’s written work something stirring in the brush drew her attention. A tan dog with a black saddleback pattern and pointed ears panted near the top of Bloodstone Falls highest peak. The German Shepherd stared back at April, and as she stood back up, so did the canine. April took a ginger step forward, but the animal fled.
“Shit, no. Uh, Roofio,” April whistled. “Come here boy.”
When the dog failed to return April swore before clambering up the steep incline. April expired profusely as she clung onto dirt, but once she realized she was only halfway through, she stopped to catch her breath. She tightened her boots, blew her bangs out of her face and cursed the hill’s loose soil before continuing. By the time she’d reached the top, she was exhausted.
The rounded top of Bloodstone Falls was covered in bald cypresses. April put her back on one of the hardy trees and let herself cool down. She skimmed the thicket for Rufus. The emaciated dog had run deep into a distant vale and sat next to slumped woman’s body. From far away, April could make out khaki shorts an olive shirt and hiking boots painted in red. April raced to the body while removing her radio.
“Ian, come in,” she spat into the receiver.
“This is Ian,” her partner whispered, the transmission crackling with static. “Still on the hunt.”
“Ian, body found at the top of Bloodstone Falls. Need you back here, pronto.”
“Shit,” Ian cursed at full volume. “Copy that.”
April made it to the body. She stared down as Rufus licked the hiker’s face. It must have been the owner, who’d continued the search after reporting it to headquarters. A large abrasion oozed from the woman’s temple and lacerations across her knuckles glistened red. April could hear labored breaths from the hiker as her chest inflated. April placed her fingers on the woman’s wrist between the bone and tendon. Rufus whined then ran off. April ignored the dog and dug in her belt pouch for her first aid kit.
“Who’s that I see walkin’ in these woods,” a gruff voice howled over April’s shoulder. She furrowed her brow, unamused by Ian’s banter. Then it hit her. It was impossible for Ian to make it up so quickly. April reeled around. A brawny man in a grimy orange jumper huffed as he charged from the nearby wood line. He had a wild tangled mane that clung to his receding hairline and a square jaw with a flat head like a warthog. He bared his buttered teeth as he closed the distance. “Why, it’s Little Red Riding Hood.”
April tugged at her revolver, but it was trapped inside its holster. She heard her teeth crack as Hank’s meaty fist rammed along her jaw. There was a ringing in her head as she fell backwards. Hank struck again, smashing her nose. Blood spurt from her nostrils as her face screamed in agony. April reached out her hand, begging for mercy. She mumbled incoherently before Hank lifted his Croc and booted her chest. April’s breath sapped away as she fell on her side.
Hank lurched over April and tugged her pistol. April’s entire body lifted as he jerked the firearm from its purse. A bug buzzed in her ear as the escaped convict panted over her, his breath stinking of fish.
“Sorry Pocahontas,” Hank snorted, his words dry and raspy as they clucked off his tongue. “usually I’d take my time with a sweet piece like you, but I’m in a hurry.”
April heard the hammer draw back from her pistol. She tried to get to her feet, pushing up from her knuckles, but her body faltered. The cold touch of the gun’s barrel pressed on her temple. She squeezed her eyes and readied for Hank to fire.
April felt a burst of draft followed by a jolt from Hank’s body as it fell on top of her. The weight alone was unbearable. April opened her eyes and tried to focus her blurred vision. A basketball sized stone stained in red lay near Hank’s bloody head. Still, the big man thrashed about, kicking her as he wobbled to his knees. April spotted her pistol laying next to her. She strained to lift her hand, grabbing the handle.
“Don’t you even think about it bitch,” Hank fizzed through his locked teeth. He tried to capture April’s arm as she lifted the gun, but his wobbly mitt flapped past it. April found what little focus she had left, crawled backwards and aimed at Hank’s head. His eyes rolled in his head before fixing on the barrel.
“Oh, look at Pocahontas.” Hank shook his head violently, trying to gather his senses. “Go ahead girl, let’s see if you got the guts.” Hank grunted, speaking through a hard grimace. “You get one shot. Make it good because I’m gonna split you in two.”
April didn’t want to shoot. It went against everything she believed in. If she didn’t though, Hank would surely kill her, then finish the hiker. If April missed, or didn’t hit him right, he’d do terrible things to them and then kill them both. Afterwards, who knows if Hank would get Ian and anyone else that came up. April’s hands shook.
“I knew you didn’t it have it in you,” Hank snorted before pouncing like a tiger.
The gun’s flash was blinding, and its thunder stung April’s ears. Hank’s body froze, his expression locked in a scowl. A thumbnail sized hole trickled red down Hank’s brows, then rolled over his nose. His body slumped over and collapsed to the side.
April dragged herself to a knee, cupping her broken nose. She stared off in the distance, looking for her rescuer. She half expected to see Ian with another rock in his hand, but no one was around. Then shockingly, in the woodland, a figure caught her by surprise.
A man shaped creature half as tall as the oak it stooped behind exchanged glances with April. Its strapping chest made up the bulk of its body, which was covered in dark fur. Its strong brow curved over a flat face and broad, protruding jaw. Its eyes were calm and its body never moved as it watched April. It simply peered from the safety of the thick weald,
Just then a twig snapped hard to April’s left. She swung her head to see who was approaching. April could make out Ian’s peppered hair as he limped with his revolver pointed towards her path. His eyes grew wide as he saw the state April was in.
“Jesus April,” Ian gasped, “you sprung a hundred leaks.” April’s gaze returned to where the creature had been. It was no longer there. Ian spotted Hank and kicked him to ensure he was dead before looking at the jogger. “She alive?”
“Okay, I’m calling it in,” Ian said as he pressed on his radio button.
“Did you see it?” April asked calmly.
Ian paused. “See what?”
April shook her head. She leaned back, staring at the tree where the beast once stood. Her head pounded.
“See what?” Ian repeated, looking to wear April was staring.
“Nevermind,” she said flatly. “Some people just can’t see the truth.”
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