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Archive for May, 2017

Lochsa River

 

Avery’s first sight of Arabella Blair stayed with him long after she had gone out of his life forever. A small figure on a huge blood bay horse leading a string of a dozen mules emerged from the deep shadows of the Idaho forest and headed down the dusty road towards the Ranger Station. In the bright sunlight, the gray Stetson cast those incredible gray eyes in deep shadow. The battered hat – an ancient relic from a bygone day – was not standard Forest Service issue nor were the cowboy boots. Whatever her job description, it did not entail a lot of public meet-and-greet, apparently.

A second rider emerged at the tail of the string of mules. Male. Older, with a belly that spilled over his belt buckle, mounted on a rough-boned buckskin. The reports had not mentioned a partner. Tired of waiting and anxious to get this interview over with so he could go back home to Seattle, Avery stepped off the porch of the station office and walked down the road to meet them. The bay took exception to his presence and danced away from him. Avery scowled at the high strung beast, suddenly remembering his hatred for all things horse.

Arabella did not curse the horse nor him. Instead she ignored him, moving with the horse, sitting in the saddle like she had been born there, waiting patiently for it to settle. Taking its cue from its rider, the horse calmed and kept on walking, but it laid its ears back as it neared Avery, as if to tell him just where he stood in the herd ranking. Avery understood. He was a stranger standing between the bay and its stable. Nostrils flared wide, the horse glared at him as it passed by. Avery shuddered. He knew that look. The beast was deciding whether to stomp him to death or not.

The girl said something. The bay heaved a frustrated sigh and shook his head, not wanting to heed her advice. She made a soft clicking sound. The bay snorted, lifted its head, and dance on by.

Danger averted, Avery let his breath out slowly, trying to ease the tension in his body. That relief only lasted a second. What he saw on her saddle reminded him that he should not be letting his guard down around these people.

A large caliber rifle in a scabbard was tied to the skirt of the saddle. Her armament did not end there. A sheathed commando knife was strapped to her thigh and the odd lumps under her loose Forest Service wind-breaker might have included a radio and a canteen but Avery thought one of them was suspiciously hand-gun shaped. He had been a metropolitan cop for so long he had forgotten how pervasive guns were out in the wild parts of the world.

The string passed the office and headed around the side to the corrals. The staff in the office came out to watch from the shade of the porch. John Jankowski, the District Ranger and Avery’s host, came out and spotted Avery. The Ranger cleared his throat.

Avery glanced back at him. This was his station and Avery was here under the man’s sufferance. Avery had been told not to “piss him off.”

“She is like her horse. You gotta approach her slowly with your hands where she can see them,” Jankowski suggested. Avery nodded. The other men tried to hide their smiles. The advice was code for something. They weren’t going to tell him what that meant, but they were going to be entertained when he crashed and burned trying to climb into this woman’s head. Was this some sort of initiation right for the big-city boys – toss them at the prickly horse woman and watch him get eviscerated? Avery refused to get angry. Turning, he followed the mule train. Her partner, a big-boned man with gray hair, rode by. “Ye might wanna stand off to the side a bit until we get the mules into the corral,” he suggested dryly.

Avery nodded and stepped off onto the grassy verge. The smell of horse sweat brought back memories of the summer spent on his grandfather’s cattle ranch in Texas when he was nine. His father’s father had been an old man even back then, his tongue sharp, his patience for the habits of his city-bred grandson non-existent. He loved his horses more than his kin, was the way Avery remembered it. Avery was never quite sure why his gee-pa had agreed to foster him that summer. His parent’s marriage must have been on the rocks even back then. He remembered clearly that all horses hated him, maybe because they sensed his own antipathy for anything weighing half a ton that liked to nip at little boys ears and step on his toes when he wasn’t paying attention.

At the corral gate, the girl nudged the bay forward, stopping it at the gatepost. She didn’t dismount. Instead she hung off the saddle, one hand around the saddle horn, while the other hand shifted the loop that kept the gate closed. The bay planted his feet and glared at Avery in challenge. Was that his imagination, giving the stupid beast a human emotion? No, horses were evil incarnate put on earth to torment the unwary. Avery could see the devil inside this one, willing to take on the world for this girl.

Arabella clicked her tongue again and the horse backed away from the gate as she heaved it outward, still hanging off the edge of the saddle. The well-balanced gate swung open, barely missing the legs of the bay. It was a trick move. Both rider and horse needed to read each other’s minds to pull it off. The mules were already crowding to get in. Some laid back their ears and jostled for position in the line. The man on the buckskin yelled a command while nudging the mules in with his mount.

Avery caught the gate as it tried to pin him against the side of the corral.

“You Arabella Blair? I’m special agent ….” She cut him off mid-sentence.

“People call me Bell. You wanna close the gate behind me?”

“Uh, sure.” Avery said. Was she mad at him or just naturally taciturn? The old man on the buckskin followed the mule train into the corral, the bay surging forward to follow. Avery came in last, closing the gate behind him.

Bell kicked her toes out of the stirrups, threw her leg over the saddle horn, slid to the ground, and dropped the reins. Ground hitched, his gee-pa had called it. The horse would not move again until she picked them up. Avery opened his mouth to introduce himself again but she walked around him and headed for the mules.

The old man dismounted and watched her, a quizzical look on his face. Then he shrugged and held out his hand to Avery. “Hi. I am Deek Gundersen. Head wrangler for this station.”

Avery shook his hand. “Avery Harris. Special Agent. FBI.”

“Yeah. We were told to expect you,” Deek said.

“Did my office get the date wrong?

“Eh?”

“I came up two days ago. They said you were almost down the mountain so I decided to wait instead of driving all the way back to Missoula. All the rooms down at the Lodge were let so your boss put me up in the bunkhouse with the crews.”

“You were lucky there was a bed available. We are fully staffed this time of the year. Crew bunkhouses ain’t bad. Sheets are clean at least and Macy, in the cookhouse, puts on a mean spread. Though, this late in the season, the kids have gotten to know each other so it can get a bit rowdy in some of the cabins. Jankowski must’a told you we were doing a supply run to the fire towers. My people get anxious when we don’t show up on time. Comes from being alone for months on end.”

“I am here to investigate the murders,” Avery said pointedly, thinking that his business should have superseded anything else. If Avery was expecting some sort of apology he did not get it.

Deek shrugged. “It’s been two months. Those kids aren’t getting any deader one way or t’other.”

Avery, nonplussed by the strange response, was temporarily speechless. Deek grunted and returned to the mules.

Bell and the old man began unpacking. It was a long involved process because the mules’ rigs came in five parts – four panniers strapped to an x-post saddle. The mules stood calmly while the packs were taken away and the saddles thrown over the top of the corral railing. Freed, the animals went looking for a perfect puddle of dust to roll in. Avery backed up against the railings to avoid the flailing hooves.

The men on the porch came around the corner and let themselves into the corral. Soon, all five of them were tending to the mules. Even Jankowski came down to help. The tall Ranger said something to Bell. She looked back at Avery, and then shrugged. The Ranger said something else and she scowled, stopped what she was doing, and headed towards Avery.

He stepped towards her, but she ignored him once more. Instead, she returned to her horse and picked up the reins. Meeting his eyes for the first time, she studied him. Those odd gray eyes dominated her face – that and the freckles. She spent a lot of time in the sun. The deep tan faded at her chin and turned into a storm of freckles on porcelain pale skin. Two burnished copper braids rested on her shoulders. Avery found himself wondering what that hair would look like loose and draped across a pillow. All she lacked for being classically Irish was a Shetland sweater.

“My name is Special A ….”

“I can’t keep this boy standing for too long. If you want to talk, come on then.”

Avery scowled at her as she turned and walked towards the barn doors. The bay followed so close his nose was almost tucked up under her arm.

It was cool and dark inside the barn. A handful of horses stuck their heads out over their stall gates and whickered a greeting. Bell draped the bay’s reins loosely through an iron ring and then relieved the horse of its saddle. She hung her battered Stetson on a nail by the door and slipped out of the wind-breaker, tossing it over a stall door, revealing the things on her belt – a snub-nosed thirty-eight, a satellite phone, and a canteen. The rifle and the knife got stowed in a locked gun-safe. She kept the key on a chain around her neck.

Avery studied the knife. The hilt was tantalizingly familiar. His fingers wanted to slide it out of its sheath to confirm his suspicions. The phone went into an array of chargers on the back of a work bench. The 38 and the leather pouch for the extra clip went into its own locked box inside the gun safe. The canteen was tossed into a box full of random camping gear.

“You don’t like the 9 mil that all the other Rangers carry?”

“I don’t deal with humans much.”

Avery blinked and tried to wrap his head around what she meant by that.

“Your guns are not for humans? What do you use them for?” Avery asked.

“The rifle is for grizzlies. You usually see them coming from a distance and have time to draw and shoot to warn them off. The pistol is for the cougars. You never see those bastards until they are on top of you. The 38 makes a loud bang. The noise is usually all it takes to make them think twice about eating one of my mules.”

“And the knife? Is that standard Forest Service issue?”

She eyed him sourly. “Present from Deek when I got this job.”

“Seems overkill. What do you use it for?”

She heard the accusation in his voice and looked up from locking the gun safe. There was a frown on her face.

“You never been hunting, have you?” she asked. She did not wait for his answer. Grabbing the reins of the bay, she led him into a stall. There she switched out the bridle for a soft, cotton halter. Making sure the horse had plenty of fresh hay and a good portion of grain, she went in search of curry combs. Avery followed her around, watching as she took care of her mount. She reminded him of his gee-pa, for some reason. Maybe it was the way she didn’t have to talk to the horse to get it to do what she wanted.

“So. You obviously are a hunter,” Avery said. “The three boys died – not from the gunshot wounds but from the slice across the throat with a Seal combat knife a lot like yours. Is that what a hunter would do?”

“They are a popular knife. A good tool when you are rough camping.”

“You ever kill something with your knife?”

Bell sighed in exasperation. She stopped what she was doing.

“Look. Only a fool walks up on a kill that is still half-alive. You risk getting an antler through the guts. You don’t drain the body until after the heart stops beating. On the other hand, it is how you butcher hogs,” Bell said, brushing the dust out of the bays coat. The bay was busy eating but did not seem to mind.

“What is?”

“Pigs. You string em up by their hind feet while they are still alive and cut their throats, catching all that blood in a basin so’s you can make blood sausage. They bleed out and the meat comes out clean and pale.”

The cavalier way she talked about killing disturbed him. It made his cop instincts tingle. Then he caught a smile on her face as she turned away. Was she messing with him?

“You ever butcher a hog?” Avery asked.

“Naw. It’s a filthy business, raising pigs. I prefer my bacon the old fashioned way, from a store, wrapped in plastic.” She did not hide her amusement at her own joke. Avery raised an eyebrow, intrigued by the way the smile changed her face.

“Was the bear killed that way?”

“The assholes gut shot it. Stupid. Careless. It ran for a mile before it turned around and challenged them. They shot it in the head. Don’t know what shape the bile duct was in by the time they cut it open to harvest its innards but it couldn’t have been good. I think they took Christy to make up for the loss in profits.”

“You don’t think they took her for their own pleasure?”

“They didn’t rape her. They had all the time in the world but nobody touched her. At least not while they were up on the mountain.”

“And you know this how?”

“I was first on the scene. Got there before the sheriff’s boys trampled all over the sign. Followed the tracks back to the pull-out where they had their vehicle parked. She still had her boots on when they put her in their truck.”

“Boots?” Avery smiled, shaking his head. “You can tell all this from boot prints?”

“She wore Whites.”

Avery looked confused.

“Logging boots. Steel-toed high-top lace-ups with high-heeled vibrum soles made for walking on the wet bark of newly felled trees. All the university Forestry majors wear them. Combine that with a pair of tight jeans and you got a pretty good chastity belt. Nobody has sex wearing Whites. Trust me, I’ve tried. By the time you get the boots off, you’ve forgotten why you were trying to undress in the middle of the woods in the first place.”

Avery blinked. Bell liked to shock people, it seemed. It left them off-guard. Avery refused to play her game. “They might have just bent her over a log and taken her from behind,” he suggested crudely.

“The sign for that just never showed up anywhere. Maybe killing three kids spooked them. They knew how much noise all that gunfire had made. The district is full of tourists this time of year. And somebody would come looking for the crew when they didn’t come home. They had to get off the mountain, down the road, and out of there as fast as possible.”

“Which road?” Avery asked, trying to remember the map in the reports.

“The one you drove up to the Ranger Station on. It is the only road that leads up to that spot.”

“Christ. These people killed three boys, kidnapped a girl, and then drove right past the station? Did no one notice? I … Why was that not in the reports? Did the sheriff’s people not ask about seeing any strange vehicles drive past the Station?”

“It’s tourist season. The Lodge out by the highway has been booked solid since January. Them and everyone who comes down the highway from Missoula or Kooskia stop here to take a break. Most everyone drives at least as far as the bridge to go see the river. After a while, you just never look up when the cars drive by the station.”

Avery shook his head. “To see a river?”

“The Lochsa River. Wild and Scenic, as the brochures say. Protected by federal law. Part of the reason this station is here,” she explained patiently.

“Yes, but still. What kind of numbers are we talking about? Five? Ten cars a day? Somebody had to have noticed something,”

“But we didn’t, which means they were not out of place,” Bell said. “The vehicle would have been something a local would drive out into the woods and the plates would have been local.”

“Jesus Christ, that is a big help,” Avery said, unable to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Missoula is in in Montana and Kooskia is in Washington. This station is in Idaho and nobody lives here. Even the Idaho plates are not local. Your state capitol is 500 miles away down a long, winding two lane highway. Everyone is traveling here from somewhere else.”

“Like I said. Local and not out-of-place.”

Avery ran his fingers through his hair and tried to get back on track. “So. We have a bunch of poachers,”

“Two,” Bell said. “Two distinct footprints.”

“Goddammit,” breathed Avery. It was dawning on him that she had been the source of the highly technical and detailed report submitted by the county sheriff’s office. “The photos in my report. The tire prints and the boot prints. That was your doing, wasn’t it?”

“I borrowed Sheriff Yellow Wolf’s camera and took the photos for him. But the spoor was already a day old and disappearing fast.”

“Why not use your cell phone to take pictures? I see no record of you releasing your phone to the investigators.”

She laughed. “We are in the middle of a mountain range. Cell phones with their handy cameras just don’t work up here. Everybody leaves there phones in their bunks for when they go back into the world. It was already 16 hours after the fact when the cops showed up and another 24 hours after that before the forensic team showed up. The trail had gone cold by then.”

“But you were right there. Nosing around the crime scene. How did you get there first?”

Bell patted the bay and put the combs away. “Come on outside.”

Avery followed her out into the corral. The mules all had feedbags on their noses. Bell crossed to one of the mules and scratched behind its ear. “This is one of the Head sisters. Her name is Knot. I have been working with her all summer. Despite her name she is the most tractable of the mules.”

“Name?” Avery was hopelessly lost.

“Deek named them. This is Knot Head. That one is Block Head. That’s Knuckle Head. The Head sisters.” Bell smiled.

Avery glared at her, now truly lost. “What does a mule have to do with this?”

“Knot will do just about anything I ask her to do. She is fearless and thinks she is part goat. So when I asked her to take me across the river, she didn’t hesitate.”

Avery closed his eyes and then looked up over the top of the corral railing. The Lochsa River ran by the compound, not 100 feet from where they were standings. It was a hundred feet from bank to bank and full of rushing water. “OK. Explain it to me like I am a city boy.”

Bell smiled and pointed at the road running up from the highway. “That is the road to the bridge. The bridge is 10 miles in that direction.” She pointed up river. “Wick’s crew was across the river, surveying in a logging road, over there.” She pointed directly across the river. “To get there you have to go up to the bridge, cross, and follow the road west until it ends. Then you gotta get out and hike in. Five miles, plus or minus. The crew had been working their way down-river for a week and a half so the hike into the job site got a little longer everyday. The day before they died, Donny pulled a stupid stunt. He waded across the river on foot, right there. It’s a wide and fast river. Wick couldn’t dissuade him and Donny was convinced that this late in the season, water levels were low enough that it could be done. Cut himself a walking staff and then took off.” Bell pointed at the beach. “Walked out of the river right there, about two hours before the rest of his crew showed up. Jankowski chewed him out good but Donny was grinning the whole time. I think there might have been a bet involved.”

Bell turned back to Avery. “So when Wick’s crew didn’t show up by dinner time and they couldn’t raise him on the sat-phone, it was decided we needed to go look for them. But we left it for too late. The sun was setting. By the time anyone drove to the tail-head and hiked down that survey line that Wick and his guys had been cutting all week, it would have been dark. If they found anything, it would have been by total accident. So I put a saddle blanket on Knot, threw some stuff into a day-pack, and rode her to the river. She thought about it a bit and then stepped into the water. When we got across it was just a matter of heading up-slope until our path intersected with the survey line. Wick had been planting lathe and flagging all week. It was easy to find. Then I followed it to the end. The packs, the equipment, the brush-hooks, they all lay scattered as if they had been dropped in a hurry. There was enough light to pick up their trail as they ran through the undergrowth. It led me to the clearing with the bear and the three boys. Donny died first, I think. Wick next. He was half on top of Donny. Ken must have grabbed Chrissy and tried to make a run for it. They shot him in the back. I found Chrissy’s hand-prints in the dirt by his body and her bloody hand prints on his shirt around the wound from where she tried to save him. They pulled her off him. There were drag marks to a place where she knelt in the dirt away from the bodies while the two poachers circled around her. If they were going to rape her, it would have been then, with their blood up from the murders. Maybe they started to. The blue-plaid flannel shirt they found off in the bushes, wadded up and covered in blood, that was hers. Her mother made it for her. Her mother is crafty, that way. Always sending her care packages.” Bell stopped and looked away, towards the side of the mountain across the river.

It was the first time Bell had shown any emotion about the deaths. Avery let her have a moment. Then he prompted her with the next question. “Why do you think they stopped?”

Bell sighed and turned those crazy gray eyes in his direction. “You seen pictures of Chrissy?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, not the one from the papers. Not that stupid high school photo. She looks like a total geek in that one. She liked to wear baggy t-shirts and that awful blue flannel. Blue jeans, shit-stomper boots, no makeup, and long blond hair kept in braids because she couldn’t be bothered with fussing over it. Classic Montana tomboy through and through, but oh my, undressed, she had a body that wouldn’t stop. Perfect. All tits and ass. You know that curve a woman has, walking away from you, that curve made by the round ass and the thin waist?” Bell closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling. “She didn’t think she was pretty, herself. Had some strange notion that she wanted to be taller and thinner like the models in the magazines. I was never going to tell her how delicious she looked.”

Avery took a moment to reorganize everything he thought he knew about Bell.

“Were you lovers?”

Bell looked up and laughed. “God, no. I hate virgins.”

Avery’s indrawn breath triggered a coughing fit. When he could breathe again he looked up.

“How did you know Chrissy was a virgin?” Avery was not sure how the conversation ended up running down this rabbit hole.

“I like to sit in on the poker games the girls run out of the bunkhouse by the showers. A pint of booze or a dime-bag is the buy-in. One giant slumber party with all the girls dressed in their night clothes. Girls talk when they get high. Chrissy was like a brand-new copper penny. Bright. Shiny. Never been touched by the fingers that eventually turn us all dark and etched. No. The world had not broken her heart yet. She was saving it for something. Something special, maybe, but I am pretty sure she did not know what that something was. She just wanted to have fun. Drove the boys mad because she treated them all like her big brothers. Anyway, she was out of their league. Broke their hearts but she did not know it. They all gave up and became her friend, instead. She had the whole compound looking out for her. Clueless. Virginal. She thought everyone was just being friendly.” Bell snorted, amused. “Montana country girls. They are their own special breed of stupid. Evil people would want to own that, thinking they could cage a butterfly, not realizing what they were attracted to would be the first thing to die. The poachers, I think they figured out real quick what they had. Greedy. Why else were they out poaching bear? She was special. Some rich bastard out in the world probably paid top dollar for her. If there is such a thing as a cattle auction for people, she probably ended up there. Don’t suppose you guys tried looking there first?”

Bell looked up into Avery’s eyes. She was angry. It made her pale eyes grow hard and cold. Avery said nothing.

“No? I thought so. It was too much to expect that you guys would pull your heads out of your collective ass to actually track her down.” Bell patted the mule. “That Chrissy – that bright, shiny penny – she is gone. Dead. Our Chrissy never made it down into the world.”

“I don’t understand …”

“Chrissy is smart. She was here because she wanted to break the chains of her parent’s expectations. She wanted to take the world on her own terms. She changed her major from pre-med to Forestry after her first semester freshman year just so’s she could watch her mother’s head explode. Somewhere in the long drive out of these woods, Chrissy would have figured it out.”

“Figured what out?”

“That the world had betrayed her. It was about to break her heart and if she was going to survive she would have to dig deep and grow a spine. If Chrissy is alive…” Bell’s voice broke. Avery waited as she took a deep breath and regained her composure. “If Chrissy is alive, she knows things now. She has met the dark shit hidden behind the walls. Now she knows that the world is full of men who are assholes needing to be killed. You find those people. Make them pay for what they have broken.”

Avery did not flinch from the passion in those incredible eyes. He meant to do just that. Make people pay. That was why he was here. But he could not help wondering who had broken Bell’s heart and whether she had ever acted on that urge to kill her abusers.

Jankowski organized a trip out to the murder site. Avery, expecting to leave right away, was informed they would head out at first light to maximize the amount of daylight they needed to study the evidence. Two of the staff, Bart and Wally, volunteered to come with them. Bell looked down at his suit and city shoes. “You got hiking boots and clothes that won’t be the worse for wear after a little bit of bushwacking?”

“I came prepared,” Avery said.

She snorted, not believing him for a minute, and headed off to the showers.

He looked for Bell at dinner in the cookhouse. When she didn’t show, he asked one of the older crewmen.

“She’s staff. Shares a cabin with Deek. Staff have their own cabins with kitchens. They all take turns cooking for each other and hosting dinners for other staff. They don’t mingle with the summer help after hours.”

Someone said something crude about Deek.

“She likes her men old and smelling of horse,” a girl said. Another girl sniggered. Avery tried to keep his displeasure off his face.

“Shut it,” an older girl said. “Deek is her uncle. That’s how she got the job.”

“The food is good here,” Avery said, changing the subject. “Do they never come into the cookhouse?”

“They think they are better than us,” a boy said. “Can’t share a table with the temps.”

The oldest boy just shrugged. “We gotta have a chance to relax away from job and bosses. They do it for us.” Avery decided he liked this kid. He steered the conversation towards the boys who had been murdered. Everyone knew everyone else. They all drove into Missoula on Friday nights, spent the weekends bar-hopping and then crashed at one house or another before driving back over the pass Monday morning in time to arrive for work. Donny, at 25, was what these kids called an aging hippy. Wick, 21, had been taking a summer break from the University of Washington doctorate math program, and had been admired by everyone. Kenny, 22, was a surly kid with a quick temper who was not shy about throwing the first punch in a argument which apparently was a huge asset when bar-crawling in Missoula. But no one disliked him enough to want him dead.

“Chrissy like him?” Avery asked.

“Chrissy adored everyone,” one of the girls said. It was not a compliment.

“Chrissy was good. She saw only good in the people around her. Everyone wanted to live up to that expectation,” said the older kid.

“They always came back happy at the end of the day,” said another girl. Avery looked at her, a question on his lips. She elaborated. “Wick’s crew, I mean. They never came back pissed off at each other. I think they got along just fine.”

Avery nodded. That, in and of itself, explained more than anything else who Wick and his crew were.

He showed up the next morning dressed in his best REI gear. Bell suppressed a smile. The only thing she had changed was her boots. Whites, Avery surmised, noting the tall heel on the vibrum soles. She saw him looking and grinned.

“Moss doesn’t grow on your tree, does it?” she said.

Avery smiled back.

Bell drove the ancient SUV. It was an International Harvester painted the ubiquitous Forest Service green. Surely as old as or older than Bell, the engine roared into life at first try. Someone on the station had spent a lot of time keeping the ugly piece of metal in running shape. The car ride was quiet while everyone huddled in their jackets and sipped on the ubiquitous travel mug of coffee. Bell had the heater going full-blast to cut the early morning chill. It would be hours before the sun came over the top of the mountain.

Wally and Bart sat in the back seat, talking about their weekend plans which involved bars and bands and bars with bands. They reminisced about past concerts which seemed to be measured by how much they drank until passing out or blacking out or losing all memory of said event. Avery tuned them out. Bell stopped the SUV mid-span on the bridge and let him have a moment with the scenery. Avery could appreciate why people came to see the view. The river was a white-water paradise and the valley was a verdant expanse of old-growth trees that marched up to the sky.

The minute they crossed the bridge and turned down-river, Bell seemed to withdraw into herself.

“I am sorry if this is going to difficult for you,” Avery said softly. “It is just that I need your eyes helping me see the scene the way you found it.”

The men in the back seat grew quiet, listening to the conversation.

“You see this sort of thing all the time up in the big city?” she asked. “The dead bodies that once were human beings?”

“They are still human, even in death. The dead have a lot to say about how they died. It is a puzzle and they want me to solve it. I like that part of it.”

“I have been to funerals,” she said. “They cake the makeup on until the bodies look like wax dolls. This was nothing like that. Their bodies were still warm when I got there but you could tell even from a distance that they were empty and no one was going to be walking around ever again. Like butchering time on the ranch. A bullet between the eyes and the steers drop to the ground and somewhere in that short time, they go from being alive to being just … meat.”

Bell turned her head to look at him with those hard eyes. “You ever watch a friend get turned into meat?’

Avery flinched. “I did two tours in Afghanistan, so yes.”

Bell returned her gaze to the road but that answer seemed to give her comfort.

In the middle of nowhere, the road just ended. Bell parked at the edge of the turn-around and got out of the truck, pulling her backpack with her. She pulled the sat-phone out of the pack along with the snub-nosed 38, and the commando knife. That and a canteen went onto her belt. The battered hat stayed in the pack. They would not lack for shade under the dense tree canopy.

Avery pulled out his case file and leafed through the photos. He pulled out the ones that showed this spot. It was the same except except the photos were filled with police tape and forensic markers. Bell looked over his shoulder.

She walked over to the spot from the photo. “They parked here and hiked in. The trail is well-used by bear and cougar and elk. You keep on going up the mountain and you get to Fire Tower #58. Audrey Campbell is up there now. At 58, she is one of our older lookouts. Chrissy’s boots left clear marks in the dust – the Whites leave a distinctive mark.” Bell stomped her own boot into the dust and lifted it away carefully. The classic waffle mark was clear. “The poachers wore old boots. Well-worn, the soles had distinctive wear marks. The big guy, he led with his right foot. The back edge of his sole was worn away. The smaller guy, his boots were a little newer, the soles had a weird chevron wave in it. He dragged his left foot. Old injury maybe. It left a distinctive wear on the toe of his left boot.”

“Army issue desert boots. I wore them in Afghanistan,” Avery said, looking at the photo of the cast impression the sheriff’s forensic team had made.

Bell looked over his shoulder again. “I built a cage of sticks around those prints to keep people from driving over them. That and the tire tracks. It was 36 hours after the event and already the wind and damp was crumbling the edges of the print.” Bell pointed at the photo, running her finger along the offending edges.

Avery walked the edges of the road, making a loop. “Good job. Thank you for that.”

“It was dark. I had one flashlight and I was shaking from running all the way from …” she waved vaguely down-river.

“Did you think you would find them still parked here?”

Bell shook her head. “I don’t know if I was thinking at all. It was just a gut instinct. To find Chrissy before something really bad happened to her. I got here and it was empty. Already too dark to track anymore. I had to lay the flashlight flat on the ground to find the prints. I called Jankowski and warned him not to disturb the evidence and then I ran back. I’d left Knothead to guard the bodies and she would start to get nervous as it grew darker.”

“Er? The mule?” Avery had to look at her face to make sure she wasn’t pulling his leg. “Guard against what?”

“Bears. The wind carries the smell of blood pretty far up these slopes. I needed to get back before some bear decided to take on Knothead or start eating the bodies.”

“You were what – going to take on a bear with that? Your knife and your little gun?” Avery asked incredulously.

“Yes, if need be. Me and Knothead. Mules will take on a bear if they feel cornered. I had it covered until the rest of the crews arrived. We built a bunch of small fires around the clearing and made a lot of noise all night. I found a bunch of bear sign the next morning so I know they were interested.”

She locked the SUV and headed down the path. Avery followed. Soon the well worn path veered up, away from the river. Bell stepped off to follow a path of a different sort. It was not hard to follow the survey line. The lathe had been tied off with bright red plastic ribbon that rattled in the breeze. She showed him the spot were the surveying equipment had been dropped and then she took him the last 100 yards to the clearing documented in the photos in his file. The police tape was in tatters, the ground disturbed. Scavengers had been at the site. Bart and Wally stopped at the edge of the circle of flattened plants, looking nervous while Bell stepped into the center of the clearing. Avery was watching her face, trying to get a clue to her thoughts.

“Talk to me,” he said softly.

Bell sighed and shook her head. Then she turned on her heel, eyes raking the clearing. A finger pointed. “The bear fell there. They had sliced it open and taken what they wanted. Quick. Efficient. Like they had done it a dozen times before.” She turned. “Wick was there. He took a round to the chest that knocked him flat. Didn’t die right away. I don’t think he was conscious when they cut his throat. Donny was half underneath him. Gut shot at close range. Large caliber pistol, maybe. He tried to fight them when they put the knife to his throat. Nearly lost the fingers on his left hand. That would make the killer right handed.”

Bell turned and walk a dozen paces to a spot hidden by low bushes. “Ken was here. Shot in the back. Rifle, I think. He went down, pulling Chrissy down with him which makes me think he had her by the hand, pulling her along. She would not have left Wick or Donny willingly. She tried to save Ken. Took off her shirt and shoved it into the wound on his back, not realizing the round had blown a hole in his sternum the size of a grapefruit. He was already close to death when they sliced his throat open. Chrissy fought them but they lifted her off her feet and drug her over there.” Bell walked to a spot that seemed like every other spot in the clearing but to her mind’s eye had special significance. “She ended up here. Kneeling. Begging for her life, maybe. Please, Mr. Monster. Don’t kill me. I will do anything.”

Avery flinched at the hard edge in her voice. “Or maybe she was angry. They had just killed her close friends,” Avery suggested.

Bell looked up. There was a glimmer of hope in those eyes now. “Maybe. Maybe she was figuring out how to get her hands on the knife so’s she could kill them.”

“Two big burly guys against one tiny girl?” Avery asked doubtfully. “She was scared. Fear makes you freeze up. Shock would have begun to set in. What she had just seen was horrific.

Bell considered this for a moment and then shook her head. “Did I tell you about the first time I met Chrissy?”

Avery waited. He was willing to let Bell talk if she needed to. It was only fair.

“I was working with Knothead. Teaching her how to do the standing mule jump. I had just come off a week of a resupply run. She was sitting on the top of the corral rail, watching me convince Knothead that going over the hurdle was more fun than going around it. She laughed. She had a great laugh. Knew her way around horses. Grew up on a ranch outside Utica with 5 older brothers. When I let Knothead go back to stand with her sisters, she asked me if she could look at my knife. I liked her. So I handed it to her. She slid it out of its sheath, spun it around her fingers to get a feel for its balance, looked at me with that imp smile she had, and asked if I wanted to see something cool. Then she took the knife by the tip of the blade and threw it across the the corral. It buried itself in the center of a knot on one of the upright posts. She laughed like a kid playing a trick. Her brothers had taught her that.” Bell looked at Avery. “No. I am pretty sure she was going to find a way to get that knife. You find a monster out in the world that shows up dead from a knife wound? That will be Chrissy.”

Bell turned her back to him and went to stand with Bart and Wally. Avery sighed and opened his file. Walking the clearing, he reread all the reports. In this place of death, Wally and Bart had noting to say or maybe Bell’s silent grief infected them all. He knew what he had come to here to find out. It took him no closer to finding Chrissy but at least he had a better idea who she was. That was always a plus when a case had grown cold.

Later, as the sun set, after packing his bags into his rental car, he went in search of Bell one last time. She was in the barn, cleaning the feet of a gray mare.

“You off, then?” she asked, dropping the hoof off her knee.

“Yeah.” Avery handed her his business card. “You ever get to Seattle, look me up. I’ll give you a tour of the city. Take you out for clams and salmon.”

“Sure,” she said, smiling softly. The card disappeared into a shirt pocket. He was certain he would never see her again.

Avery hesitate. “I shouldn’t tell you this. Technically, the case is still active. We found something.”

Bell looked up. “Chrissy?”

“No. Nothing like that. Divers stumbled across a black SUV with Montana plates in a deep cove of the Puget Sound ten days ago. Two bodies were inside. Unidentifiable after all this time, but their boots were intact. They match the impressions taken by the sheriff. Forensics say they were tied up and alive when the car went into the water.”

Bell stared at him for a long while. “What does that mean? What happened to Chrissy?”

”The way I figure it, they pissed off somebody powerful. Or maybe whoever bought Chrissy didn’t trust them to not blab about it. They were killed to keep them quiet, maybe. That, in and of itself, tells me where to keep looking. Like you said. Some fat cat has her. Is keeping her as his own personal plaything. It is just a matter of time until we find her.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Bell asked.

“I thought you should know that you got your wish. They broke your butterfly and then karma caught up with them. The monsters got what they deserved. The world outside of these woods is not as bleak as you think. Give the rest of the human race a chance to prove that to you.”

Bell stared at him, her eyes gone dark, her mind obviously miles away. Then she shrugged and picked up the hoof again. “Deek is getting old. I gotta be here for him. Maybe this winter I will get my truck out of mothballs and take it for a drive in your direction.”

Avery watched her clean the hoof for a few more minutes and then he got in his car and drove home.

****

Bell waited a few days and then she borrowed Deek’s truck and drove into Missoula. Parking in the alley behind the old Victorian house, she climbed the steps to the second floor apartment, letting herself in with the key in her pocket. Chrissy looked up from her book and smiled.

“You eat yet?” she asked. “I can make us some eggs.”

“Never mind that,” Bell said, grabbing her up into her arms and planting a kiss on the small of her throat. “I missed you. I want to nibble on you until you scream.”

“Oh,” Chrissy said. laughing. “Yes, please.”

It was good to hear her laugh. The broken thing that had shown up on her doorstep a month before had forgotten how to laugh. All shell-shocked and hollow eyed, it had taken Bell weeks to work  the truth out of her. Being able to touch her, like this, this was a new thing. Bell took full advantage of it.

They made love, talked a bit, and then made lover again. Later, somewhere in the middle of the night, Bell dug Avery’s business card out of her pocket and handed it to her young friend. “Tweedle dumb and dumber are dead.”

Chrissy stared at the card for a moment. “Good,” she said finally. “What else did he say?”

“I was watching his face when I told him you knew how to use a knife. I don’t think they found the bodies yet.”

Chrissy’s face was inscrutable. She had killed three men with a kitchen knife that she had sharpened to a razor’s edge and yet somehow their deaths had not touched her soul. Bell did not quite understand that.

Chrissy shook her head. “Half his business was under the table and illegal. As head of a crime syndicate, I am sure he had lieutenants waiting in the wings to take his place. All that money would make disposing of a few bodies simple enough. Don’t worry about it. We are safe. I want to spend the winter with you and Deek out on your ranch. When are you done at the Ranger Station?”

“First snow, and I’m gone. You going to be OK ’til then?”

Chrissy shrugged and fluffed her short, ebony hair. “I was thinking about adding a rainbow highlight. What do you think?”

“Mmm,” Bell said, kissing the side of her mouth. “As long as you are naked, I don’t care what color your hair is.”

Bell watched her eyes close and  her breathing deepen. She watched the girl for a long time, drinking in the moment. This would not last. Chrissy would heal eventually and remember that she used to be in love with the world. She would miss her brothers and need to be held by her mother. Someday, maybe not this year or the next, when she was ready to talk about what had happened to her, Bell would help her make the call to Avery.

It would be too much to hope that she would learn to love the touch of a man again but Bell had trained a lot of hard-headed mules. With enough patience, you could teach them anything. Bell would lose her forever, then. It could not be helped. Bell loved her too much to want to stop that from happening.

 

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