“LOTS OF CHARACTERS GET COMPARED TO MY OWN JACK REACHER, BUT PETRIE'S PETER ASH IS THE REAL DEAL.”—Lee Child
*An Entertainment Weekly Must List Pick
In the new novel featuring war veteran Peter Ash, “an action hero of the likes of Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne” (Lincoln Journal-Star), Ash has a woman’s life in his hands—and her mystery is stranger than he could ever imagine.
War veteran Peter Ash sought peace and quiet among the towering redwoods of northern California, but the trip isn’t quite the balm he’d hoped for. The dense forest and close fog cause his claustrophobia to buzz and spark, and then he stumbles upon a grizzly, long thought to have vanished from this part of the country. In a fight of man against bear, Peter doesn’t favor his odds, so he makes a strategic retreat up a nearby sapling.
There, he finds something strange: a climbing rope, affixed to a distant branch above. It leads to another, and another, up through the giant tree canopy, and ending at a hanging platform. On the platform is a woman on the run. From below them come the sounds of men and gunshots.
Just days ago, investigative journalist June Cassidy escaped a kidnapping by the men who are still on her trail. She suspects they’re after something belonging to her mother, a prominent software designer who recently died in an accident. June needs time to figure out what’s going on, and help from someone with Peter’s particular set of skills.
Only one step ahead of their pursuers, Peter and June must race to unravel this peculiar mystery. What they find leads them to an eccentric recluse, a shadowy pseudo-military organization, and an extraordinary tool that may change the modern world forever.
About the Author
Nick Petrie received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and his story "At the Laundromat" won the 2006 Short Story Contest in the The Seattle Review, a national literary journal. A husband and father, he runs a home-inspection business in Milwaukee. His novels in the Peter Ash series include The Drifter, winner of the ITW Thriller Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel, Burning Bright, and Light It Up.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Nick Petrie
Don’t get in the car.
June Cassidy had heard this many times. From her mom, from her self-defense instructors, from her friends, the same thing, over and over.
No matter what, don’t get in the car.
Because then they have you.
It was good advice, she thought.
But it did her no good now that they’d gotten her in the fucking car.
She had her back against the locked door of a big SUV, plastic handcuffs on her wrists, and a witless slab of pseudo-government beef leering at her from the next seat over.
Her options were limited.
June was having a particularly bad week in a challenging few years.
Her newspaper got bought out just like practically every other big-city paper, and the new owners loaded it up with debt to pay themselves for their investment. When the classifieds plummeted like a rock – thanks, Craig, for your free fucking List – the paper began to lay off reporters, especially investigative reporters, who might take weeks or months to research a story for publication. June was young, cheap labor, and she was good at her job, so she lasted longer than most. But the economics were brutal and getting more unforgiving by the minute.
Then the axe finally fell and June was just another freelancer with a degree in journalism. In this age of technology, it was almost as useful as a degree in Klingon, or, God forbid, English.
For a woman on her own and pushing thirty, freelancing was no substitute for an actual job.
Somehow, after a year of scrounging for scraps and trying to learn how to drive traffic to her blog, she’d gotten invited to join Public Investigations, a non-profit group of investigative journalists funded by a Kickstarter-like model, dedicated to doing the kind of work that many papers could no longer afford to pay for.
Public Investigations did awesome work. Their financial reporters broke the in-depth story about the attempted bank bombing in Milwaukee last year and the flash-crash that went with it. But the budget was small and June was still essentially a freelancer with editorial backup, which was not the same thing as health insurance and a byline in the Chicago Tribune.
Still, she was making real progress, splitting time between her garage apartment in Seattle and her mom’s little house in Palo Alto, which gave her an inexpensive platform to cover the west coast. Her specialty was issues of privacy in the electronic age. After Manning and Snowden and the NSA revelations, privacy seemed permanently in the headlines, and her professional life was finally taking off again.
Then her mom, a yoga fanatic and vegetarian who also swam a half-mile every day, was killed by a hit-and-run driver and died. A week ago today.
June’s mother. Hazel Cassidy, tenured professor at Stanford University, MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and renown pain in the ass, killed by a plumber’s truck at sixty.
Like a lot of women, June had a complicated relationship with her mother. June’s career choices, her boyfriends, her hair, all were candidates for improvement, although her mother never made a direct assault.
Hazel’s trademark was a certain kind of passive-aggressive backhanded compliment. “That outfit wouldn’t work on me, but it looks very nice on you.” When June’s investigative series on data breaches in medical technology was nominated for the Pulitzer, Hazel threw her daughter a fabulous party, but also invited June’s ex-boyfriend, because June’s current flame didn’t meet Hazel’s high standards.
The worst of it, of course, was that she was usually right. She was right about the outfit, and she was right about the fucking boyfriend, too. About all the boyfriends, actually. June tried, sometimes successfully, not to be so stubborn that she couldn’t recognize how well her mother knew her, and how much she cared.
It was easier now that her mother was dead.
What June wouldn’t give for another snarky comment about her goddamn hair.
Her mom had been gone a week, and it already felt like forever.
June had spent the first few days planning and surviving the memorial service, and the days after in her mother’s house, going through her things, crying and remembering and trying to figure things out.
Not least of which was the fact that her mother had apparently been working on some kind of classified software project for the Department of Defense. And she’d never even hinted at it to June.
Unable to sleep, June had planned to use her mother’s key card and code to let herself into the cluttered lab at Stanford. She told herself she was there to collect family pictures and the few plants her mother had managed not to kill, but mostly she just wanted to sit with the memory of her mom in the place she’d most fully inhabited, her computer lab.
Instead, June found a broken lock, the door held open by chair, and a pair of thick humorless men in dark suits with Defense Department ID’s packing Tyg3r, her mother’s experimental benchmade mini-supercomputer, into a cardboard box with all the spare drives they could find. They’d already stacked their hand truck with banker’s boxes, apparently filled with the contents of her mother’s secure, fireproof file cabinet, which now stood open like a corpse for the medical examiner.
Although the G-men didn’t show their ID’s long enough for her to get their names, they made sure June could see the guns on their hips. The pale one did the talking, while his eyes wandered up and down her body. The dark one didn’t say a word. They left her standing in the doorway with a warning that even this incident was classified, and if she even spoke of it she would face federal prosecution.
June watched them trundle the hand truck down the hall, thinking that her mother had always hated the government.
So why would she work for the Department of Defense?
Put another way, why would they show up at three a.m.?
And why would they take Tyg3r, the temperamental mini-super, but leave the big blazing-fast liquid-cooled Cray her mother had been so proud of?
So June had a lot on her mind. And when she finally dragged her ass out of bed the next day, she realized there was no coffee in the house. How the hell had that happened?
When she recognized the emergency conditions, she pulled on yesterday’s clothes, slung her messenger bag over her shoulder, got on her mother’s ancient but highly-tuned single-speed Schwinn, and headed for Philz Coffee.
On Middlefield Road, a giant black SUV with tinted windows pulled up beside her, crowding her toward the parking lane. Red and blue lights flashed on the dash. When the passenger window hummed down, the same pale humorless G-man from the night before pretended to smile at her now.
He wasn’t looking at her face, of course. He was watching the way the cross-strap from her messenger bag defined her breasts. Definitely not cool, she thought. Some woman needs to rewrite the DOD training manual.
“Please pull over, Ms. Cassidy. We’d like to speak with you for a few moments.”
“Not right now,” said June crossly, still pedaling. She was dangerously undercaffeinated, with a headache that would kill a rhino, and hadn’t done shit for exercise in several days. The bike ride was just beginning to unknot her muscles when this moron showed up. “I need some coffee.”
The big SUV kept pace with her. “This will just take a moment,” he said. “We can drive through Starbucks if you’d like.”
The G-man clearly failed to comprehend. Plus she would never go to Starbucks unless she was taken hostage, and even then she would fight it. “Hey,” she said. “I’m busy. Send me an email. Call my cell. I’m sure you can figure out the number.”
The G-man looked at the driver, who was definitely less pale but appeared no less humorless. Why did they have such horrible suits? The driver nodded.
“Ma’am,” said the pale G-man. “I’m with the United States government. Are you refusing my lawful request?”
“Jesus Christ, no.” Although she was starting to wonder if it was a lawful request. This wasn’t her area, but she could make some calls and find out. “After lunch, okay? I have a meeting. Send me a text.”
The G-man raised his hand and the driver slanted the black SUV into her path, leaving June no option but to slam on the brakes or be forced into a parked car.
“Hey listen motherfucker,” she began, but the G-man stepped out of the SUV, jammed a crackling electric stun gun into her side, and pulled the trigger.
It felt like being punched by a gorilla. June’s legs stopped working, and she collapsed over her mom’s bike.
The man captured her wrists in a pair of plastic riot handcuffs, disentangled her from the Schwinn, picked her up like a rag doll, and threw her into the back seat.
The driver scanned his mirrors. “What about the bike?”
“Leave it,” said the first man, picking up June’s fallen bag and getting in beside her. He took a phone from his pocket, touched a button. “We have her,” he said.
The SUV roared back into mid-morning traffic, red and blue lights still flashing, conveying the impression of importance and urgency, with only a faint crunching sound as the left rear wheel rolled over her mother’s beautiful old bicycle.
The next car slowed as he detoured around the twisted frame of the fallen Schwinn, but he was the only person to wonder what had happened.
By then, the black SUV was long gone.
June’s skin felt hot under the T-shirt where the stun gun hit her. She didn’t feel damaged, thankfully, just sore, like a long day at the climbing gym. She was more banged up from falling across her mom’s bike. Mostly she was scared at finding herself thrown into a strange car with strange men. But that fear was rapidly converting to anger.
She was sure now that these men were not with the government, despite the badges and flashing lights. They wouldn’t have used a stun gun on her. They’d simply have had the local cops knock on her door and bring her in.
But why did they want her to begin with?
The only thing that made sense was that it had something to do with her mother’s lab.
She took careful inventory of her surroundings. The back doors were locked, and the driver watched his mirrors and the road ahead. The negligent way her seat-mate kept an eye on her told her that he didn’t consider her a threat, just a girl like any other. Until he began to leer at her a little, checking her out in her handcuffs, like he might ask her for dinner when the whole thing was over.
As if he didn’t quite get that he’d fucking zapped her with a stun gun and abducted her.
She recognized this particular look from the guy who got her staggering drunk on everclear-laced “punch” early in her freshman year, so that he could rape her in the coat room of a fraternity. The kind of guy who told himself that the girl went to a party to get drunk and laid and he was just helping her out, and that No really meant Yes because dude he was so damn handsome that a girl couldn’t really be turning him down on purpose.
She reported the rape to the campus cops, but his asshole buddies rallied with bullshit stories of how she’d gotten drunk and come on to him, and the investigator couldn’t do much. She didn’t even know if he believed her.
So, with no other option available but to allow the whole thing to eat her alive, June decided to consider the incident to be a powerful lesson in poor judgment and a strong incentive to take full responsibility for herself. She stopped going to big parties, started self-defense classes and never drank anything she hadn’t poured herself.
She never thought of herself as a violent person, or someone easily angered. The self-defense training was just that, a means to protect herself. But she had been known to harbor a grudge, and now she took long, deep breaths, oxygenating her blood and stoking her anger to a pure white heat while she waited for a red light.
When the driver stayed in the lane for Old Middlefield, she knew she was running out of time. Once they hit the freeway, she was fucked. There would be no red light. She saw the sign for Las Muchachas, tightened her abs, locked her left hand on the back of the driver’s headrest, and pivoted on her seat to kick the man she now thought of as the date-rapist directly in the face.
She wore her favorite heavy hiking boots, and her legs were very strong from running and biking, so the kick had substantial force. He rocked back and tried to block her, but she kept kicking him as hard as she could in the face and neck and forearms.
When he finally went on the offensive, reaching out for her with thick hands, she leaned in with a wrist lock, grabbed his vulnerable little finger and bent it back, not an easy thing with her wrists cuffed but very effective. The date-rapist’s meaty bloodstreaked face twisted up and he shouted in pain, the driver was yelling and trying to pull over, and she really should have thought this through first but she was in it now and not giving up because the alternative was entirely unacceptable.
“Give me the fucking stun gun,” she growled. His finger was at the edge of breaking. His face was torn up from her all-terrain soles, but he was clearly furious and she didn’t want to get close to him. He was much bigger and stronger than she was, and the enclosed space was not to her advantage. She didn’t know how long he’d give a shit about his finger. If he zapped her again or pulled her into a clinch or even hit her once in the face with a closed fist, she’d be finished. She shouted it again, loud and hard, “Give me the fucking stun gun!”
“Okay, okay,” he said and fumbled in his pocket. But she could read his intentions in his piggy little eyes and as the stun gun came out, she broke his finger. She could feel the crunch as the bone broke, a small weak bone despite the meatiness of his hand. He howled, but he’d already reached the same calculus she did, so despite the broken finger he pushed the stun gun toward her, trigger down and contacts crackling bright.
She hadn’t let go of his finger. Now she pulled hard on it, twisting, grinding the bone. The date-rapist yelped and dropped the stun gun. She had to let go of his finger to scoop up the stun gun, but that’s an exchange she made gladly, because the SUV was veering to the curb and soon she’d have the driver to deal with.
The date-rapist clutched his injured hand to his chest but dropped his leg. She lifted herself on one knee and drove a kick hard to his unprotected groin. She felt the softness there and knew she’d made contact when he cried out wetly and curled himself up into a ball on his seat.
She pivoted on the knee and jammed the stun gun into the back of the driver’s neck and held the trigger down for a long time. The smell of burning meat filled the air.
The SUV was already slowing fast. The resultant electrical spasm made the driver stab the brake hard. The wheels locked and the tires grabbed at the asphalt.
June was on her knees on the back seat and the change in inertia pitched her over the center console and into the dashboard, which did not feel good on her shoulder and arm. The cuffs were a problem but she kept her grip on the stun gun, managed to get her feet under her, and zapped the driver again, holding the contacts against his shirt until he went limp. When the truck finished lurching, she threw the gearshift into park, then reached over the back seat and zapped the curled-up date-rapist hard through the shiny seat of his shitty suit. He jerked and cried out but he was jammed against the door and she held the arcing stun gun until he stopped struggling and the fabric started to blacken at the contact point. His bowels released and the smell made her gag.
She popped the door and fell out of the car onto the empty sidewalk like waking from a nightmare, but forced herself to open the back door and reach into the date-rapist’s pockets. It wasn’t easy with her hands bound, but that was the whole point after all. When she found the ugly little knife with a wicked-looking serrated blade, she immediately cut the plastic cuffs, then dropped the knife into her own pocket. He carried a gun in a shoulder holster, which she didn’t touch, and a wallet and ID folder in his suit coat pocket, which she took.
The driver was moaning so she climbed back in the front and zapped him again in the chest. She left his gun too, but his wallet was in his back pocket, and much harder to get to. She had to unbuckle his seat belt and open his door and spill him halfway into the street to take it.
She wanted their wallets and IDs because she was an investigative journalist and she had experience with the power of knowledge. And she didn’t want these assholes to have the power of their fake IDs when the cops showed up. Leaving the guns would only make the situation more difficult for them to explain.
By now there was considerable attention being paid to the big SUV, which had come to a screeching halt across two lanes of traffic onto the sidewalk, narrowly missing a low brick wall sheltering a parking lot. Cars were backed up and blocked by the part of the SUV still in the street, and people peered from their half-open doors.
Through the dark abyss of receding adrenaline, June somehow retained the presence of mind to retrieve her bag. She dumped the wallets and stun gun inside, took out her Cubs hat, and pulled it down low over her eyes with shaking hands before choosing the fastest route off the street and walking away, wondering if she’d killed the date-rapist and how many security cameras had captured her face.
What the holy hell was going on?
She ran down the service drive beside a car shop, threaded through the ragged plantings that bordered the parking lots, then across Independence to a sheltered mini-mall before allowing herself to walk shuddering into a little boutique called Glad Rags. She beelined to the restrooms in the back, collapsed into a stall with her bag on her lap, and allowed herself to dissolve into a silent convulsive tears.
She only gave herself a few minutes, but it was all she needed. By the time she’d wiped her eyes on the backs of her wrists, rinsed her face and reapplied her lip balm, her brain was fully engaged, her professional paranoia in high gear, and her anger like a cold iron bar.
She was pissed.
They had broken into her mother’s lab. They’d assaulted June on the street. She wasn’t sure if it was safe to talk to the police, or even where she might go after leaving the relative safety of the ladies’ room. Her mother’s house? Probably not. Her own place, all the way up in Seattle?
If not there, where?
She assembled a mental list of places to go, people to call. Then wondered if she’d be putting them in danger, too. Jesus Christ.
Gathering her self-possession around her like a cloak, she walked back through the store, where she selected a sleek reversible fleece hoodie and a floppy straw gardening hat. If they were watching the security cameras, she could now make herself look like three or four different people.
June’s crying jag had left her eyes red and puffy. The matronly saleswoman looked at her kindly as she approached the counter. “Dear, are you alright?”
June had prepared herself for this question with several variations on the truth. “I just broke up with the most awful man,” she said. “He made it so difficult. I practically had to jump out of his car to get away.”
“Oh, honey,” said the older woman, with such profound sympathy that June knew she had chosen the right way to tell the story. “Men are such complete fuckers, aren’t they?”
“I’m done with them,” said June, pulling out her credit card. “Completely done.”
“Like a fish needs a bicycle,” said the saleswoman with a secret smile as she rang up June’s purchases. “Honey, what kind of bag would you like?”
“You know, I think I’ll just wear them,” said June. “Can I ask a favor? To tell you the truth, I’m a little afraid he’s outside right now. I really don’t want to run into him. Would it be all right if I went out the back?”
She found an old mountain bike leaning unlocked against a railing, a gift fallen into her lap. She told herself she’d somehow get the bike back to the owner, knowing even then that it was a lie, and rode off just managing not to look over her shoulder.
At her mother’s house, another official-looking black SUV squatted at the curb. June just kept pedaling. Luckily, her mom’s car had blocked the driveway, June had never found the keys, and she’d left her old Subaru wagon around the corner.
She checked to see if her own keys were still in her bag, along with the rest of her professional existence. Notebook computer in a padded sleeve, phone, notepad, pens. She never left home without them.
She leaned the bike against a low fence, got in her car, and drove quietly away.
Where she was going, she had no idea.
When he rounded the curve on the narrow trail and saw the bear, Peter Ash was thinking about robbing a liquor store. Or a gas station, he was weighing his options.
On foot with a pack on his back, he was as deep into old-growth redwood country as he could get. Although most of the original giants had been logged off decades before, there were still a few decent-sized protected areas along the California coasts, with enough steep, tangled acreage to get truly lost. In the deep, damp drainage bottoms thick with underbrush, redwood trunks fifteen feet in diameter shot up into the mist like gnarled columns holding up the sky.
But Peter hadn’t counted on the coastal fog. It had been constant for days. He couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction, and it made the white static crackle and spark in the back of his head.
It was the static that made him want to rob a liquor store.
The closest one was at least a few days’ walk ahead of him, so the plan was still purely theoretical. But he was putting the pieces together in his mind.
He didn’t want to use a weapon, because he was pretty sure armed robbery carried a longer sentence than he was willing to take. He didn’t want to go to actual prison, just the local jail, and only for a few days. He’d settle for overnight. Although how he’d try to rob a liquor store without a visible weapon was a problem he hadn’t yet solved.
He could put his hand inside a paper bag and pretend to be holding a gun. He’d probably have to hold something, to make it more realistic. Maybe a banana?
Hell, now he was just embarrassing himself.
Any respectable liquor store employee would just laugh at him. Hopefully they’d still call the cops, who would put him in the back of a squad car, then at least a holding cell. Maybe overnight, maybe for a few days. It was a calculated risk.
The problem was these woods. They were so dense and dark, the coastal cloud cover so thick and low, that he hadn’t seen the sky for weeks. The white static wouldn’t leave him alone, even out here, miles from so-called civilization. It pissed him off. He’d wanted to walk in this ancient forest for years. Now he was here in this green paradise and he couldn’t enjoy it.
Peter Ash was tall and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra. His long face was angular, the tips of his ears slightly pointed, his dark hair an unruly shag. He had wide, knuckly hands and the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change. Some part of him was always in motion – even now, hiking in the woods, his fingertips twitched in time to some interior metronome that never ceased.
He’d been a Marine Lieutenant in Iraq and Afghanistan, eight years and more deployments than he cared to remember. Boots on the ground, tip of the spear. He’d finished with his war two years before, but the war still wasn’t finished with him. It had left him with a souvenir. He called it the white static, an oddball form of post-traumatic stress that showed up as claustrophobia, an intense reaction to enclosed spaces.
It hadn’t appeared until he was back home, just days from mustering out.
At first, going inside a building was merely uncomfortable. He’d feel a fine-grained sensation at the back of his neck, like electric foam, a small battery stuck under the skin. If he stayed inside, it would intensify. The foam would turn to sparks, a crackling unease in his brainstem, a profound dissonance just at the edge of hearing. His neck would tense, and his shoulders would begin to rise as his muscles tightened. He’d look for the exits as his chest clamped up, and he’d begin to have trouble catching his breath. After twenty minutes, he’d be in a full-blown panic attack, hyperventilating, the fight-or-flight mechanism cranked up all the way.
Mostly, he’d chosen flight.
He’d spent over a year backpacking in the western mountains, trying to let himself get back to normal. But it hadn’t worked. He’d finally forced himself outside his comfort zone to help some friends the year before, and it had gotten a little better. He’d thought he was making progress. But they’d gone back to their lives and Peter had gone off on his own again, and something had happened. Somehow he’d lost the ground he’d gained.
Lost so much ground that even walking through the foggy redwoods in the spring was enough to get the static sparking in his head.
Which is why he was contemplating the best way to get himself locked up. Get this shit out of his system once and for all.
He wasn’t thinking it was a good idea.
Then he saw the bear.
It was about thirty yards ahead of him, just downslope from the narrow trail that wound along the flank of the mountain.
At first all he could see was a mottled brown form roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle, covered with fur, attempting to roll a half-rotted log down the side of the mountain.
It took Peter a few more steps to figure out that he was seeing a bear.
The trail ran through a deep pocket of old-growth trees in an area too steep for commercial logging. It was mid-March, and Peter assumed the bear was looking for food. There would be grubs under the log, which would provide much-needed protein in that still-lean time of the year. The bear grumbled to itself as it dug into the dirt, sounding a little like Peter’s dad when he cleaned out the back of his truck. The bear was focused on its task, and hadn’t yet noticed the human.
Peter stopped walking.
Black bears were plentiful in the wilder pockets of the west, but they were smaller, usually three or four hundred pounds when fully grown. Black bears could do a lot of damage if they felt threatened, but they usually avoided confrontation with humans. Peter had chased black bears out of his campsite by clapping his hands and shouting.
This was not a black bear.
This bear was a rich reddish-brown, with a pronounced hump, and very big. A grizzly. At the top of the food chain, grizzlies could be very aggressive, and were known to kill hikers. Clapping his hands wouldn’t discourage the bear. It would be more like a dinner bell, alerting the bear to the possibility of a good meal.
The most dangerous time to meet a grizzly was in the fall, when they were desperately packing on fat to make it through the winter.
The second-most dangerous time was spring, with the bear right out of hibernation and extremely hungry. Like now.
Peter was lean and strong from weeks of backcountry hiking. His clothes were worn thin by rock and brush, the pack cinched tight on his back to make it easier to scramble through the heavy undergrowth. His leather boots had been resoled twice, the padded leather collars patched where mice had nibbled them for the salt while he slept wrapped in his groundcloth.
He’d walked a lot of miles in those mountains.
Now he wondered how fast he could run.
He took a slow step back, trying to be as quiet as possible, then another. Maybe he could disappear in the fog.
Peter had once met an old-timer who’d called the bears Mr. Griz, as a term of respect. The old man had recited the facts like a litany. Mr. Griz can grow to a thousand pounds or more. Mr. Griz can run forty miles an hour in short bursts. His jaws are strong enough to crush a bowling ball. Mr. Griz eats everything. He will attack a human being if he feels threatened or hungry. Mr. Griz has no natural enemies.
The bear was still focused on the rotting log. Peter took a third step back, then a fourth. A little faster now.
Call it a retreat in the face of overwhelming force. No dishonor in that, right? Even for a United States Marine.
The California Grizzly was supposed to be extinct. But this bear looked big, and big males were known to travel long distances in search of mates. He was only sixty miles south of the Oregon border, and in this dark primeval forest, anything seemed possible.
Five steps, now six. Peter didn’t care how much this particular grizzly weighed, or what he felt like eating. He didn’t want to find out. He was almost back to the bend in the trail. This would be a good story to tell someday.
Then he felt a slight breeze move the hairs on the back of his neck. The wind, which had been in his face, had shifted.
He was in trouble.
Grizzlies have fair eyesight and good hearing, but their sense of smell is superb. And the mountain breeze carried Peter’s weeks-long hiking stink, along with the smell of his supplies, directly to the bear’s brain. The supplies included a delicious trail mix made of cashews and almonds and peanuts and raisins and chocolate chips.
Much better than grubs under a log.
The bear’s head popped up with a snort.
Peter stepped backwards a bit faster, feeling the adrenaline sing in his blood, reminding himself of the old-timer’s advice on meeting Mr. Griz.
You didn’t want to appear to be a threat, or to look like food. Running away was a bad idea, because bears could run faster than people. And running away was prey behavior.
What you were supposed to do, said the old-timer, was drop your pack to give the bear something to investigate, then retreat backward. If the bear charged, curl up into a ball, protecting your head, neck and face with your arms. You might get mauled, but you’d be less likely to be killed.
Peter was not exactly the curl-into-a-ball type.
The bear stood upright on its hind legs, now a good eight or nine feet tall, and sniffed the air like a Silicon Valley sommelier.
Mmmm. Trail mix.
Peter took another step back. Then another.
The bear dropped to all fours and charged.
Peter shucked his pack and ran like hell.
He’d grown up with animals. Dogs in the yard, horses in the barn, chickens and cats wherever they felt like going. He’d kind of inherited a big dog the year before, or maybe the dog had inherited him, it wasn’t entirely clear. In the end the dog had found a better home than Peter could provide.
But he liked animals. Hell, he liked grizzly bears, at least in theory. He certainly liked how it felt to know a big predator was out there. It made him feel more alive.
The backpack distracted the bear for only a few seconds, barely long enough for Peter to round the corner, find a climbable sapling and jump up. The bear was right at his heels at the end. Mr. Griz chomped a chunk of rubber from the sole of Peter’s boot. Peter was glad he got to keep the foot.
He scrambled higher, finding handholds in the cervices of the soft, deep bark. This was a redwood sapling, tall and straight as a flagpole. He hugged the trunk with his arms and legs while the bear roared and thumped the sapling with his forepaws, apparently uninterested in climbing up after him. The young tree rocked back and forth and Peter’s heart thumped in his chest.
Alive, alive, I am alive.
Would you rather be here, or stuck behind a desk somewhere?
“Bad bear,” he called down. “You are a very bad bear.”
After a few minutes, Mr. Griz gave up and wandered back toward the smell of trail mix. Peter had to climb another ten feet before he found a branch that would hold his weight. He was wondering how long to wait when the bear returned dragging Peter’s backpack. It settled itself at the base of the tree and began to enthusiastically disembowel the pack.
After an hour, Peter’s two-week food supply was working its way through the entrepreneurial bear’s digestive system, along with his emergency phone, long underwear, and fifty feet of climbing rope.
“Mr. Griz, you give the word ‘omnivore’ a whole new meaning,” Peter said from the safety of his high perch.
The bear then proceeded to entertain itself by shredding Peter’s sleeping bag, rain gear, and spare clothing. Peter said a few bad words about the bear’s mother.
Mr. Griz was tearing up Peter’s new featherweight tent when it began to rain again. Big, pelting drops.
Peter sighed. He’d really liked that tent.
For one thing, it kept the rain off.
He’d slept many strange places in his thirty-some years. His first six months, he was told that he slept in a dresser drawer. As a teenager in fairly constant and general disagreement with his father, he often preferred to sleep in the barn with the horses, even during the severe winter weather common in northern Wisconsin. He’d slept in tents, on boats, under the stars, and in the cab of his 1968 Chevy pickup. In Iraq and Afghanistan, he’d slept in a bombed-out cigarette factory, in a looted palace, in combat outposts and Humvees and MRAPs and anyplace else he could manage to catch a few Z’s.
He’d never slept in a tree before.
It wasn’t easy. The rain fell steadily, and soaked through his clothes. As the adrenaline faded, the static returned to fizz and spark at the back of his brain, which added to the challenge of sleep. His eyes would flutter shut and he would drift off, arms wrapped around the trunk of the sapling, serenaded by the snores of Mr. Griz below. Then he’d abruptly jerk awake to the sensation of falling and find himself scrabbling for a handhold, shivering in the cold and wet.
The night seemed to last a long time.
He spent the time awake remembering the previous winter, spent camping alone in the Utah desert. But the arid emptiness had left him with a longing for tall trees, so he made his way through the beautiful emptiness of Nevada to California’s thirsty, fertile central valley and the overdeveloped mess of the northern bay area. It made him think, as he often did, that the world would be better off without so many people in it.
He’d parked his pickup in the driveway of a fellow Marine in Clearlake, California, and walked through housing tracts and mini-malls and vineyards and cow pastures to the southern end of the Mendocino National forest, where he headed north. Sometimes he hiked on established routes, sometimes on game trails, sometimes wayfinding the forested ridges, trying to get above the rain and the fog and into the sun. He’d come too early in the year for summer’s blue skies, but he didn’t want the woods all cluttered up with people.
Instead he’d found a very large bear.
When it became light enough to see the ground, he looked down and considered his options. His gear was wrecked, his food supplies gone. Mr. Griz still down there, bigger than ever. Still snoring.
A cup of coffee would be nice, he thought. But not likely.
He was pretty sure his coffee supply was bear food too.
He looked up. He was astride a sapling in a mature redwood forest. Although he couldn’t see far in the fog, he was pretty sure the sapling went up another forty or fifty feet. The mature trees probably went up two or three hundred feet after that.
The rain had stopped sometime in the night, and although the fog was still thick, some quality of the mist had changed. It glowed faintly, green with growth and heady with the oxygen exhaled by giants. He thought maybe the sun had come out, somewhere up there. It turned the forest into something like an ancient cathedral.
He looked down. Mr. Griz, still sleeping. The contents of Peter’s pack destroyed or eaten. The static fizzing and popping in his head. Peter himself cold and wet and tired.
He looked up again. The promise of sunlight, and warmth, and a view.
What, you want to live forever?
He smiled, and began to climb.