The Hunted

The Hunted

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by Andrew Neiderman
     
 

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IT'S OPEN SEASON -- AND THE HILLS ARE RUNNING RED.
The mountain hamlet of Centerville is known for tradition and strong family ties. Tonight it's known for something unspeakable. A hunter has been found dead in the thick of the Catskills woods, laid out like game -- a bullet hole each in his chest and head, glassy eyes staring in abject terror -- andSee more details below

Overview

IT'S OPEN SEASON -- AND THE HILLS ARE RUNNING RED.
The mountain hamlet of Centerville is known for tradition and strong family ties. Tonight it's known for something unspeakable. A hunter has been found dead in the thick of the Catskills woods, laid out like game -- a bullet hole each in his chest and head, glassy eyes staring in abject terror -- and stripped to his skin. Picking up the scent of a sensational story, reporter Diana Brooks comes to town and finds a confidant in local hunter Aaron Kuhn. Then two more woodsmen are found murdered in the same cold-blooded way -- naked prey staked out by a merciless executioner. Now Diana and Aaron have joined a posse of hunters bound by vengeance and justice. But when paranoia rules and friend turns against friend, survival depends on sheer animal instinct. Racing to reveal the truth, Diana is about to discover the cruel laws of the mountain woods -- and the blind fear of being caught in a killer's sights.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416510444
Publisher:
Pocket Books
Publication date:
08/01/2005
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
1,059,846
File size:
2 MB

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Chapter One

Willie Brand heard the phone ringing in his sleep. He actually dreamed about picking up the receiver and beginning a conversation. It was the same conversation he had dreamed himself having so many times in his life. The state bureau of criminal investigation was calling. They had changed their minds. They needed him; they actually needed and wanted him. He wasn't going to be stuck in this one-horse town after all. He fantasized running over to tell the old man. He expected as always to find him there still in his prison correction officer's uniform, but just as always, when he got there, the rocking chair on the front porch was rocking, but there was no one in it.

It was too late...too late to make him proud. Why was it always so important to do that anyway? Was it because the old man never expected he would amount to anything? When did he first decide that? When does a father look at a son and feel a deep sense of disappointment? Hadn't he built himself up, became athletic and determined at an early age he would go into law enforcement? Other boys his age weren't thinking past the upcoming weekend or what new toy they would get. Why wasn't his attitude something in which his father could take pride?

He remembered the first time he wore his Cub Scouts uniform. How proud he felt strutting about the house in the blue and gold. He had already won a medal for his mastery of tying knots and making a fire on a camping outing. His comfort and expertise in the forest brought him compliment after compliment from his den mother. When he brought all that home, his father glanced at it with vague interest barely uttering a grunt of pride. Why did he always see a stranger in his father's eyes, like something detestable that had been left on the doorstep?

He opened his own eyes because the phone was still ringing and keeping them closed didn't stop it. The numbers on the pad glowed back through the darkness at him, resembling a small creature with green neon orbs. It went in and out of focus, something that was happening to him more and more these days, making it harder to conclude about the reality of what he saw, what he heard. Was he awake? Or was the glowing phone in his dream, too?

His mother had heard the phone ringing one tragic afternoon. He could envision it all: the way she looked up from what she was reading, her hesitation, and then her slow, but resolved walk to the table in the hallway where the phone rested, in this case like a sleeping black snake. His mother was truly amazing. Sometimes, the phone would ring and she would say, "There's trouble," and sure enough there was. How could she do that? A ring was a ring to him.

Maybe it was that ability that finally drove her into the deep depression, a dark hole of sadness from which she could not emerge, a hole which finally determined she had to be institutionalized. Was he responsible for that, too? Too bad he never had a brother or a sister. An only child has to bear the burden of his parents' troubles and their guilt as well as his own. It was too heavy a load. The shadows in the corners of his mind were growing like a cancer.

His phone continued to ring and the cold numbness that had seeped in under his face retreated. The phone became clear in his vision. Like it or not, this wasn't a dream. This was the crusty world of reality in which he resided.

He thrust out his arm and seized the receiver violently, slicing the next ring just as it had begun. Most of the local people, the old-timers, had never gotten used to the idea of calling the police station, especially this early in the morning. They either knew his number or found it out and called him directly. It didn't matter how early it was or how late it was. He knew people believed they could call him any time they wanted. He theorized that just because he wasn't married, they thought they could abuse him continually. How many times had he been jerked out of a well sought after sleep because someone had a dog barking too closely to his home or someone saw a strange automobile cruising his street? People were becoming more and more paranoid, even in the small Catskill hamlets and villages, miles away from big city life with all its urban headaches.

But country people watched television too, and, to some extent, he had to admit, it was creeping in..the evil was oozing up and down the New York State Thruway. There were more burglaries, more stolen cars, more of everything despite the flat growth in the year-round population. For the last few years, he had been pleading with the village board to expand the police force, but those arrogant bastards had ridiculed his requests.

"To do what," they asked, "enforce parking meter violations during the summer months?"

"The sheriff or the state police handle the big stuff," they said.

To him it was like rubbing salt in a wound, the wound being how little they all really respected him. He was here only for the nickel and dime crimes and problems, a discount law enforcement officer with little more importance than a school janitor scraping used chewing gum out from under desks and chairs.

"Brand," he snapped into the mouthpiece. In Centerville, his name had become synonymous with police. Small town or no small town, he was at least proud of that.

"Willie, this is Flo Jones. I...I'm sorry to bother you."

Then why do it? He wanted to say, but he didn't. Instead, he sat up and flicked on the table lamp. The dusty orange-yellow shade dropped a small pool of sickly white light over his thick muscular thighs and hairy lower legs as he rose. He seemed to rise out of his body and float above himself for a moment and then settle back into it. These crazy sensations were growing more frequent and more intense.

Got to lay off the brandy, he thought, but he knew he wouldn't. It was what got him to sleep most nights these days. The habitual insomnia had grown more intense and when he did sleep, he was tormented by a myriad of horrible images, some from the past, some so unfamiliar, he conjectured they might be from the future.

"It's all right, Flo. This is why they pay me those terrific wages," he said dryly. "What's up? The Benson kid shooting out windows with his air rifle this late at night?" Willie had great memory for complaints. Flo Jones had made that one nearly a year ago.

"No, it's nothin' like that. It's...I think I better report my husband's missin'. I was sittin' up all night thinkin' about it. Actually, all of us is up now."

"Missin'? Who? Al?"

He flipped open the small pad he kept on the table next to the lamp and turned himself toward it. Then he wrote the time and after that he wrote: Flo Jones reported her husband missing. He would do things by the book. No one was ever going to accuse him of being shoddy when it came to his work. Any other local policeman would do nothing, figuring this would probably prove to be no more than a wife reporting a husband who was on some drunken bender.

"Yes. He...well, he went out late in the afternoon, day before yesterday and hasn't returned. Went by himself."

"Went out? Out where, Flo?" he asked. There was so long a pause before she replied that he actually thought the phone had gone dead.

"Flo? Where did he go?" He would make her say it.

"He...went deer huntin'."

"Day before yesterday? Gun or bow?" he asked quickly, already knowing the reason for her reluctant answer. Hunting deer with a bow and arrow was legal day before yesterday, but Al Jones wasn't one to use a bow and arrow. He knew him well. Al was nearly fifteen years older than Willie, but in a small town like this, fifteen years one way or another didn't stop you from knowing each other pretty well. Also, Al's father and Willie's had been good friends who had hunted often together. Memories of their smiling, younger faces haunted him. Why did his father always have a better time with his friends than he had with him? Sometimes, Willie wished that he was nothing more than his father's friend.

"Gun," she said softly.

"But that was...that was before the season opened," he moaned.

Indignation and pride rose to the surface of his confused pool of thoughts. Why did everyone take advantage of him, break and bend laws expecting him to look the other way all the time? What sort of a policeman did they expect him to be? Above board only when it came to strangers, tourists, but bending for the locals? It made him feel more like a hypocrite than a cop, than someone trusted with a gun and a badge and the lives and welfare of the people he served.

He would make her feel bad.

"That's a serious violation of the hunting ordinances, Flo," he chastised.

"I know. I told him not to do it, but he carried on. Said the city slickers get up here and fill the woods, drivin' the deer to kingdom come. Said they made it more dangerous than anything, shootin' at whatever moves first, and then lookin' to see. Remember what happened to Tom Singleman last year?" She spoke quickly, trying to convince through the intensity of her words.

"I remember Al blowing off about this in Sam's Luncheonette, but I didn't think he was that serious."

He paused for a moment. It was as if he lost track of what he was saying. Similar memories of his father exploded like flashbulbs. The long diatribes against tourists, the complaints about the highway department, a shopping list of moans and groans that made him, a young boy, wonder whether they did live in the greatest country in the world after all. He was tempted to ask what the highway department was like in Egypt, but he had no more courage to be satirical than he did to be contradictory. His father still believed a young boy's place was off in the corner, all eyes and ears and no tongue. It was the way his father had been brought up, and maybe to treat Willie any differently was to deny that his own father had done it right.

"Willie?"

"Yeah, well," he said looking at his pad again. "Are you sure he's missing? Did he go far out, camping maybe?"

"He didn't take anythin' to camp with, Willie. I waited, thinkin' he mighta stopped at someone's place -- Ted McNeill maybe, but Ted ain't seen him. He woulda called me if he a done that anyhow. They boys wanna go off lookin' for him as soon as it's light, but I don't want them lost too."

"You keep the boys home. It's my job now, Flo. Any idea what area he staked out?"

"Usually goes over to Dairyland, cuttin' in behind the Lake House, ya know, but I ain't sure."

"I think I remember him talking about that area. Okay, I'll see about getting up a party to sift through the woods. If you hear anything from him, call the station. I'll be there by seven."

"Thank you. I'm sorta on pins and needles up here. Maybe he's gone and shot himself in the leg or..."

"Don't start figuring on the worst things, Flo. You'll only get yourself sick with worry. Give me a chance to organize a search party."

"Thank you. I'm sorry about...about his goin' out before the season and all," she said.

"Me too." He paused a moment anticipating more, but she didn't reply. "So long," he added and waited until he heard the click. He shook his head and then called Bruce Sussman, the patrolman on duty. It took nearly six full rings before he lifted the receiver.

"What the hell you doing?" he demanded.

"I was in the bathroom, Chief."

Willie grunted. He knew the his patrolman had been sleeping in his chair, probably with his feet up on his desk. He related Flo Jones's phone call.

"He's out drunk or shacked up somewhere, ten to one."

"Yeah, we'll save your predictions for the lottery. You pick up Jerry and have him stay in the office," he said. "I'll go right over to the luncheonette to work up a search party."

"These guys ain't going to like losing hunting time to look for a damn poacher, Chief."

"Tell me about it, Sherlock Holmes."

Willie had little respect for either of his patrolmen, but with the kind of wages the village was paying, he was lucky to have any help at all the way he saw it.

"Get the Kuhns. They both got their deer the first day as usual, Chief," Bruce said, a note of bitter envy in his voice.

"You just pick up Jerry and let me worry about who to get," Willie said and hung up the receiver so sharply he imagined the echo punching Sussman's ear. Then he lay back in bed and groaned."Fucking deer season," he said as if he was rehearsing his lines for the public. "I wish it was different," he muttered. It was such a simple wish, but he said it again.

He said it as if there were someone in the bed with him, but there wasn't. There had never been.

And the way he felt, there never would be.

The odor of raw deer meat lingered in the misty air despite the brisk cold breeze that scurried leaves and sent small pebbles rolling along the walks in Centerville. Two bucks dangled over the garage door at Kuhn's Body Shop. Their glassy eyes were stuck in a death stare. Both had long, dull red seams the lengths of their stomachs. Blood that had dropped beneath them had become dark purple stains lost in the hue of the tar driveway. Their hind legs were bent slightly and protruded at nearly identical angles, frozen in rigor mortis. Their forelegs were sloping back against their stomachs, but the hooves were bent upward. They looked as though they had been shot in midair and their bodies had locked all joints instantly.

Nothing stirred in the streets of the small Catskill mountain hamlet. The hum of a tractor trailer moving across the nearest major highway could be heard in the distance. Heavy metal signs advertising hardware stores, department stores, and bus stops were nudged by the breeze. The resulting metallic chorus of groans added a dismal note. It was as if the dead were performing a symphony written in graves.

There was a look of hibernation in everything. The summer resort season had long since ended for the upstate New York community. Most of the stores were closed for the remainder of the year. Windows were empty or soaped. The sole movie theater in town had Heckman's Hardware Store advertised on its marquee.

The first rays of the sun revealed a dark gray sky bruised with angry clouds pasted from one horizon to the other. Suddenly the front door of the Dew Drop Inn cracked open, its echo ricocheting through the village with the rapport of a gunshot. Two men in red and black checkered hats, jackets, and pants stepped out. Each man carried a Winchester 308 rifle mounted with a five-power scope.

The men spoke in subdued voices out of deference for the early morning. The stillness made them aware of all sound. Their short laughter reverberated so quickly that it made them think there were men of similar voices simultaneously preparing for a hunt. They paused for a moment and listened. Neither would admit to the other that something, for some unfathomable reason, gave him the jitters. They each shook off their nervous feelings and continued walking into the morning sunlight.

Down at the T where Main Street crossed Old Bowery Road, the lights snapped on in the front windows of Sam's Luncheonette. A small neon sign spelled SAM'S in a faded pink, but the frost on the window made it look out of focus to any passerby. A moment later two cars moved in funeral fashion through the village. The bodies of four men were silhouetted in each. A short while after, these cars were followed by the car carrying the two men from the Dew Drop Inn. Their car paused as they looked across the street to admire the two bucks hanging over the front door of Kuhn's Body Shop. Then, the two men looked away, looked toward the advent of their own kills, and headed toward the luncheonette, just as Aaron Kuhn opened the front door of his home and stepped out into the cold, gray day.

He stood on the front steps of his house and took a deep breath, enjoying the sharp, crisp morning. He pitied people who lost it, remaining in bed, cloistered and submerged in stale, heated air. He swept back the loose, long strands of light brown hair that had fallen over his forehead, and then he walked toward the body shop. At six feet two, he carried a well-proportioned one hundred and eighty-five pounds. He had worked with metal hammers, anvils, and crowbars from the very day he could wrap his fingers around handles. This early apprenticeship had helped form his hard, thick forearms and wide shoulders. He had a narrow waist and the rippling muscles that crossed his back gave him a correct, almost arrogant posture.

He stopped at the door of the body shop and unlocked the handle without so much as a glance at the two deer that dangled. It was as if they had always been there. He jerked the door upward and the springs carried it the rest of the way.

Aaron stood for a moment, gazing into his garage. He contemplated the bashed in door of Rose Fern's '99 Ford Mustang before him. It was an otherwise sporty model, as clean and shiny as the day it had been purchased.

The doctor's wife had been drinking again and she had lost control around a turn and slapped the side of the car against a parked village water department truck. Fortunately, no one was in it at the time, and Rose was so loose behind the wheel that she suffered no injuries. Aaron was quickly summoned to get the battered Mustang off the highway and hidden in his body shop. He would do the cosmetic metal surgery as soon as possible, helping to make it seem as if the event never had occurred. But before he took another step in, he heard his brother Walker's voice.

The twenty-seven-year-old man stepped out of the garage and shielded his eyes to look back at the house. Walker stood at the top of the porch steps. Aaron's twenty-four-year-old brother was naked from the waist up.

"You crazy? Put a shirt on, Walker. It's about twenty-two degrees."

"Our fearless chief of police just called. He's getting up a search party. Seems Al Jones has been missing for two days. Went hunting and never came back."

"Two days? Two days?" He held up his fingers to be sure he had heard right. His brother smiled that wry smile of his that made girls giggle and then he shrugged.

"Going or not?"

Aaron turned and looked back at Rose Fern's car.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess we gotta go. It's more important than this. Mom up yet?"

"Phone woke her. She's fixing some breakfast and carrying on about your not waking her. Chief says they're going to leave from Sam's in about an hour."

"Okay, okay. Go back inside before you come down with pneumonia and Mom blames me."

Being the older, Aaron had been blamed for his brother's indiscretions for as long as he could remember. It wasn't just his age. His parents, especially his mother, recognized he had a more mature and responsible manner. He was always on time. He always fulfilled his obligations, and for the most part, he always obeyed rules and laws, whereas Walker was always the one placed in the corner of the classroom or sitting outside the principal's office. He was Huck Finn who got away with most infractions simply on the strength of his good looks and cute impish smile.

Walker waved off the chastisement nonchalantly and then reentered the house. Aaron looked after him, trying not to pay attention to that pang of envy that occasionally stirred in his heart. There were times when he really wished he could be as lighthearted. Walker would be forever young, forever cute, and maybe forever happier.

He turned and looked at the battered Mustang for a moment and then brought the garage door down. The vibrations shook the dangling deer, who looked like they had begun to resurrect themselves. The action caught Aaron's eye. He shook his head and started back toward the house. Halfway there, he stopped and turned to look back at the empty streets just brightening with the rising sun. There was something...something. He had felt it almost as soon as he had woken this morning and even had sat up in his bed, staring at the window with some expectation.

He saw nothing in the street now to justify his feelings, nothing except shadows retreating with the growing flow of sunlight, but the feeling that had begun at the base of his stomach continued to spiral upward until it gripped his heart. A surge of instinctive fear cut through him. He was a woodsman, a hunter's hunter. He respected instinct.

He narrowed his eyes and panned the street again. It was as if...as if he were being watched. He had felt the feeling before, especially that time the bobcat stalked him.

What was stalking him in the streets of his hometown? he wondered and then drove away the thought with a shake of his head, just as though he were shaking off raindrops.

Marilyn Kuhn stood in the kitchen doorway, her hands on her hips. Aaron's mother was a tall woman, standing nearly five feet eleven. She didn't look her fifty-two years, even though her hair, the color of a dark pecan, had become inundated with light gray strands. She never added color and rarely wore it down, despite it being shoulder length.

Marilyn was still a very attractive woman. She was practically without wrinkles. Her forehead looked as smooth as it had when she was a teenager. And she had a full, svelte figure. Many older men sought her attention, but she gave none the time of day. Her interest in men waned the day her husband Grant had died, yet she still dressed and prepared herself as if he were there, ready to admire her at the dinner table.

Sometimes, Aaron caught a slight smile on his mother's face at dinner. It was eerie because it was as though she had just heard one of his father's compliments, as if he still spoke to her.

Were the words between them, the vows and expressions of love so deep and strong that they lingered long after her husband's death?

"What's this all about?" she demanded, pursing her lips, just as she always had when she reprimanded him or Walker. "And how many times have I told you to wake me when you get up so you don't go working without a decent breakfast? Your father always had a good breakfast," she chastised.

"No sense getting everyone up because I don't sleep late," Aaron said taking off his jacket. "After a while I work up an appetite. I told you."

"Many a morning you would forget about breakfast altogether, Aaron William Kuhn."

"Ma," he pleaded. He imagined himself fifty with her still treating him like a twelve-year-old. When his father was alive, they would complain about it together, try to gang up on her, but they were no match. She had the eyes. She could stare them into submission.

"Well, what's this all about, phone calls from the police, banging and busting all over the house?"

"Walker got the call. I was set to work on the Fern car. Where is that idiot?"

"Shaven'. He wants to look good for the animals in the forest. I got buckwheat pancakes. Sit down," she ordered with a layer of love under her feigned annoyance.

"I heard that, Ma," his brother called as he bounced down the stairs.

The Kuhns' house was one of the oldest in Centerville, a two-story wood building once serving as a rooming house. There were ten rooms upstairs, although they only heated three now. The downstairs consisted of the living room, the kitchen, a bathroom, and a small sitting room that his mother called the Courting Room.

"Grandma Kuhn told me half the marriages in Centerville began in that room," she had told them dozens of times.

Walker popped into the kitchen doorway. He was only a few inches shorter than Aaron, but he had softer features. He was leaner in build, yet muscular and strong. He wore his dark brown hair long, usually taking a good deal of razzing when some of the older men came to the garage to pass the time and watch him and Aaron work.

"I didn't exactly whisper it, Walker," Marilyn Kuhn said, her hands on her hips. "The day I worry about what my sons think about what I say in my own house..."

"Okay, Ma. Okay," Walker said raising his hands in surrender.

"What's the 308 out for?" Aaron asked, seeing the rifle against the wall in the hall.

"Yes," Marilyn said jumping on his question. "Why is that gun there?"

"Well, seeing as we got doe permits this year because of the overpopulation, I thought...maybe. Since we're going to be out there anyway."

"To look for a man, not to hunt doe, for crissakes."

"Never know. One might just pop out and join the search party." He smiled and rubbed his hands together as he went to sit at the table.

"Jesus, you smell like a French whore," Aaron remarked.

"Just a little aftershave."

Marilyn Kuhn slapped the pancakes so hard on Walker's plate, he jumped back in his seat.

"Ma!"

"I don't like you cuttin' out the doe. Let the department of conservation do it."

"Woman's lib, Ma."

"Woman's lib? What's that got to do with it, I'd like to know?" She looked at Aaron, but he shook his head and jabbed his fork into the pile of pancakes.

"Equal rights for male and female," Walker said. "If you can shoot one, you can shoot the other."

"Nonsense. Your father never shot a doe and you shouldn't start. Now what's this about a search party?"

"Al Jones got lost hunting. Been gone two days."

"Probably off drunk somewhere and his wife doesn't know about it," Aaron mumbled.

"Then why you givin' up your work to go look for him?" Marilyn Kuhn asked.

"I said probably, Ma."

Marilyn Kuhn smiled to herself and sat down to enjoy her own pancakes.

Her boys were good; her boys were decent people. They were tough as nails on the outside, just like their father, but they had compassion and they had her softness when it came to beautiful things. A child should be a combination of his parents. Too many she knew weren't. They were influenced more by one or the other, especially in a world where single parent families was becoming the rule and not the exception.

Why were the good things, the substantial things, the things that matter the most so much harder to hold on to these days?

Don't get me started, she told the voices within her.

Willie Brand heard the phone ringing in the police station as he was getting out of his patrol car. He figured it was Bruce Sussman coming up with some reason why Jerry Hartman couldn't get down to the station this early. He cursed both of them as he stepped through the doorway.

The Centerville Police Station was part of the municipal building, a building that housed the mayor's office, the fire department, and the community center. It was the newest and largest construction in town. Willie had wanted his office to be larger than the fourteen by fourteen cubbyhole they planned out, but he couldn't convince the town fathers of his need for that either. Prisoners were never held over there, they reasoned. All the serious cases were taken to the county jail in Monticello, the county seat.

Most of the local people sided with him when he made his case at the town meeting, but afterward, they forgot about it. Just like most things around here, he thought, especially when it came to community action or involved tax dollars. Talk, talk, talk, but rarely do. There was never a shortage of wind here, just no sails to catch it and move anything along. His father used to say that, too, only, Willie thought, his father contributed to wind. Even as a ten-year-old, he realized that.

Of course, Willie would never dare say that even behind his back. His father could just look at him and know he had thought something mean about him or something he wouldn't like. Maybe it was a skill he had to develop as a prison guard, especially at a maximum security prison. "Know what they're thinking even before they think it," was his motto.

Willie lifted the receiver.

"Brand," he said.

"Willie, this is Andy Martin. You know, up to the Gray poultry farm?"

"I know who you are, Andy."

I should, he thought, I've known you all my life. Another one losing it.

"What's up?" What was this going to be, one of those days? he wondered.

"There's a truck been parked off the lower field here. Been parked for nearly two days, I believe. Looks like it belongs to the gas company. No reason for a delivery of gas tanks to the woods or to me. I don't use gas. I have the wood stove and..."

"All right Andy. What about the truck?"

"Nothing, except no one's in it or come for it. Maybe you saw it when you drove by yesterday."

Willie sighed and rolled his eyes.

"I wasn't up your way yesterday, Andy."

"Oh. Thought you were."

"You said it's a gas truck? You sure?"

Maybe there wasn't even a vehicle there. Andy Martin was close to eighty, he thought, and had been living alone for nearly twenty-five years.

"Cornfield's, I think. Blue."

"All right, we'll be up to check it out," Willie said.

"I don't mean to bother you none. I just don't like somethin' parked out here that long," Andy Martin said.

"Okay, Andy."

"Doesn't seem right to me."

"I gotcha. Thanks," he said and hung up before the old man could add another word.

How many elderly people were there out there like that? Willie wondered and thought about his grandfather. He remembered him only vaguely, but he remembered him being stubborn and alone and always grumbling. His father was truly an apple that didn't fall far from that tree, but when it came to me, Willie thought, they used to say the tree was at the top of a hill and the apple just rolled on and on.

Cornfield's truck? he realized. Al worked for Cornfield. This thing was coming together very fast, but he'd still have to search through the woods, maybe a lot of it. He would need help. Everyone expected that he would ask for it.

A few moments later, he heard Hartman pull up. The six-foot, two-hundred-pound, blonde, and blue-eyed twenty-three-year-old took his time getting out of his car and coming into the office. He yawned as he opened the door.

Willie shook his head. Like him, Hartman was an athletic man, a former local high school football hero who had enlisted in the army right after high school and gotten into the military police. A popular hometown boy, he naturally had an easy time being hired by the village. Willie knew Hartman didn't have all that much ambition, but if he did, he would eventually become police chief. If he wanted to take the state exam, he could probably become a state policeman, too. He looked the part. Willie was still as firm and bull-necked, still dedicated to exercise, weight-lifting especially, but he couldn't help being jealous of the younger man. He had promise. He had a future if he only cared enough.

Youth was sure just wasted on the young, he thought. If he were my son, he mused, he would be different.

Hartman lived with his father, Ronnie Hartman, a plumber. Jerry was his only child and he had lost his wife to cancer a little more than four years ago. He was a plain-looking, dull man, a direct contrast to his handsome, easygoing son who often resembled a younger Harrison Ford.

"You look ambitious this morning," Willie quipped.

"Sat up watchin' a late show with my father," Jerry said. "Bruce told me to tell you he'll meet you at Sam's. He's havin' breakfast there."

"All right. Mind the store," Willie said. "If Flo Jones calls, raise me on the two-way."

"Right, Chief."

Willie grunted and hurried out. When he stepped through the doorway of Sam's Luncheonette, he felt like Gary Cooper in High Noon going to the bar to ask for volunteers to help fight the Miller gang.

The small luncheonette was already smoke filled and crowded with hunters. The restaurant itself was small, with hard wooden floors and paneled walls. Two deer racks were mounted at the far end, on both sides of the large luminous electric clock. At night, when the lights were out in the restaurant, the clock radiated the time in neon blue. Very mediocre paintings of country scenes were hung on the left wall. The front of the restaurant consisted of a large picture window, now quite misty and clouded by the smoke and condensation. Beside the neon light that spelled SAM'S, there was an etching of Sam and his wife that Bob Longo, the local high school art teacher, had done for a month's worth of free dinners.

Bruce was sitting at the counter, shoving scrambled eggs into his mouth and gulping coffee. Willie didn't move from the doorway. For a moment it was as if he had completely forgotten why he had come.

Sam, a short, bald-headed fifty-four-year-old man with a round pudgy face and puffed Popeye arms, turned from the grill and raised his eyebrows. He had known Willie all his life and had been friends with his father. Sam and he didn't need a whole lot of words between them. A look, a gesture delivered paragraphs.

"Somethin' wrong, Chief?" Sam asked in a loud voice. Some of the conversations stopped; voices lowered, heads turned.

Willie blinked and snapped to attention.

"Got a man missing two days in the woods," he announced. "I need some volunteers to help form a search party."

"Who's missin'?" someone shouted.

"Al Jones."

"Good riddance," someone said and there was laughter.

"Wife's worried," Willie said. The luncheonette became somber again. "The man's got a family."

"He went out two days ago?" Sam asked from behind the counter. Willie nodded and Sam shook his head. "Thought he was just blowin' off about it like he does about most everything."

"Head Start Jones," someone quipped.

There was more laughter.

"Sure he's still in the woods, Chief?" another man asked.

"It's looking that way and it's looking like something's not right. His truck's been parked on the road for days. Andy Martin just called and told me so."

There was a low murmur.

"All right, I'll go," someone said. That was followed by only three or four more "me too's," but Willie figured he had enough to make a decent attempt at locating the man.

"Let's get started then," Willie said.

Willie smiled at the sight of the Kuhn brothers waiting outside, leaning against their car. He had almost forgotten about them. He tilted his hat back. Behind him stood his pathetic search party: a half dozen men.

"Morning, Aaron," Willie said.

"Chief." Aaron nodded. "Any ideas where to begin?"

"Well, yeah. I got a call from Andy Martin a little while ago, telling me about a Cornfield truck parked in the field by the poultry farm. You all know Al works for Cornfield, so I guess we'll start with the truck and then go into the woods at the Lake House road...drop two off, go in a hundred yards or so and drop two off, do it again and again and all head directly northeast. There's a stream that cuts across up there."

"Catfish Creek," Aaron said.

"Yeah, anyway, Toby here remembers Al talking about going up there."

"You heard him too, chief," Toby said.

Willie blinked and stared at him. His eyes were steel.

"Or maybe you didn't," Toby added. After all, it wasn't too cool to reveal that the chief law enforcement officer overheard someone say he was going to break the law.

"Okay, let's mount up," Willie said. "Ralph and Toby can come with us. Aaron, you and Walker take Carl and Ted. These two want to go in their own car," Willie said indicating two strangers.

"This all you could get?" Walker asked.

Willie shrugged. "Everyone thinks he's sucking on a bottle somewhere. No sense wasting any more time trying to recruit any more. Besides, we can cover the territory pretty quickly, don'tcha think?"

"Let's get going. I got work to do," Aaron replied without commenting on Willie's prediction.

Willie led the search party out of Centerville and up a secondary road to Dairyland. They located the Cornfield truck quickly, and Willie checked it out.

"It's Al Jones's truck all right," he announced holding up an envelope. "Some of his mail here. Let's get started. Anyone finds anything, we shoot off two sets of three rounds, okay?"

"Where you figure on stopping?" Aaron asked.

"Route 52. It's only about a mile past the creek, right?"

"More like two, but that's fine."

They followed the chief's plan, spreading out every hundred yards or so and then heading northeast. The clouds had parted and streaks of sunshine sliced through the forest of naked trees. Only the pine threw off long, deep shadows, running over the rocky earth. With the rest of the forest leafless and barren and only the brush with which to contend, they had good visibility.

It was Aaron and Walker who found him. Aaron spotted the coat first and then the flannel shirt. When he located the pair of pants, he checked the pockets and found Al Jones's wallet.

"What the fuck..." Walker looked around, spooked by the sight of the discarded garments. "What's he doing, getting laid somewhere?"

"Don't think so," Aaron said. A few moments later, he located the second shoe and one of the heavy woolen socks. When they found the underwear, they stared at each other for a moment before going on.

"This is too weird," Walker said. Aaron nodded and listened to the forest. Spooked, Walker added, "Maybe we should signal the others."

"Let's just go a little farther," Aaron suggested. "Maybe we shouldn't wait another minute."

Aaron paused when they approached Catfish Creek and touched Walker's arm.

"What?"

"Sounds like someone else. Behind us. The others should be down or up a hundred yards."

"Maybe those city slickers ain't walking a straight line, Aaron," Walker said, but he couldn't hide his nervousness. This was all too weird. If there was someone else right behind them, he had stopped too.

After a moment Aaron went on, Walker keeping an eye on their back end. Aaron followed the tracks just the way his father had taught him and his father's father had taught him. They crossed the creek and located the signs.

"This is some distance for a man to travel naked in this weather," Aaron muttered.

Walker was speechless and hesitant but Aaron plodded on.

Not a hundred yards in, they came upon him.

Aaron told his brother to signal, but Walker just stared at the corpse. Then he turned and brought up some of that fine breakfast their mother had made.

So Aaron fired off the rounds.

Copyright © 2005 by Andrew Neiderman

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