A relaxing camping break for Iraqi war vet Harper Jennings and her husband takes an unpleasant turn when Harper stumbles across a dead body
Harper Jennings – mother, Iraqi war vet and archaeology graduate – knows she should be counting her blessings that she’s able to enjoy a child-free camping trip with husband Hank. Hank’s recovery from a brain injury after falling from their roof is nothing short of miraculous. But . . . Harper misses baby Chloe. And she worries that, in being so wrapped up in her toddler, she’s lost her own identity.
But her worries pale into insignificance when she stumbles across a body in the woods. Accident? Harper doesn’t think so, and nor does Ranger Daniels, who seems to blame local militia known as the Hunt Club – who will do anything, it seems, to protect the land they see as their birthright.
Harper wonders what exactly she’s doing, in some dark state forest, tripping over corpses, when she could be at home with her little girl – but when a fellow camper’s husband goes missing, she finds herself reluctantly sucked into the hunt, and into a waking nightmare . . .
About the Author
Merry Jones has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it was not until the birth of her second child that she decided to pursue her passion and write books. She is a member of The Mystery Writers of America, The Authors’ Guild and The Philadelphia Liars Club. She lives with her husband in the Philadelphia suburbs, teaching writing part-time at Temple University.
Read an Excerpt
In the Woods
A Harper Jennings Mystery
By Merry Jones
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Merry Jones
All rights reserved.
Al Rogers unzipped his tent just before sunrise. The air was chilly and smelled like dead leaves. Nothing moved; it was too early or too late, that time when night creatures had found their dens and day creatures hadn't begun to stir. That time when nothing ever happened. Even the trees looked drowsy. Still, Al hesitated before going out. He hadn't slept much. Kinsella had kept him up, calling him on the radio, whispering that some beast was outside his tent. Al had checked and seen nothing. But every time he'd fallen asleep – boom, Kinsella had radioed again.
'Do you hear it?' he'd asked.
'All I hear is you, Kinsella. Go the hell to sleep.'
'Listen – wait. Did you hear that?'
Al had listened. Had heard something that sounded like an owl. 'It's a hoot owl.'
'No. Not that. I mean the creeping and thumping.'
'Something heavy. And big. I swear. It's that Bog Man.'
Christ. 'Grow up, Kinsella. There is no such thing as a Bog Man. He's like the Bogey Man. He doesn't exist. If you're hearing anything, it's an animal looking for food. Shit, did you hang the bear bag high enough? He'll eat all our—'
'I'm not goofing around, Al.' When he was nervous, Jim's voice rose in pitch. It had become high falsetto. 'Don't tell me it's a bear or a fox. It's not. It's something heavy and huge. Jesus – I hear it. It's right outside my tent.' His voice was tight. Soprano.
Once again, cursing, Al had opened his tent and peered out. Once again, he'd seen no one. Nothing but the woods, the sky, and the curving hulk of Kinsella's tent. 'You ought to know better,' he'd scolded Kinsella. 'You've been walking the pipeline, what? Two years? By now you should be used to it. If you spend too much time out here, you start to imagine things. You got to learn to ignore it. Take charge of your mind.'
'I am not imagining—'
'Look, Kinsella. I don't know what the fuck you been smoking. But you're fine. Relax. I'm going to sleep.' He'd promised that if Jim called again, he'd suffer a fate worse than any Bog Man could bring on. So Kinsella had stopped calling. And apparently he'd fallen asleep; his tent was closed up tight. Silent.
Good. Al would have some time to himself before Jim got up. Not that Jim was a bad guy; just that Al was better alone. Companionship that lasted more than an hour or two intruded on him, wore him out, and he and Jim had been together nonstop for weeks. Well, only eight more days. Then he'd have seven days off. No miles to walk, no pipeline to inspect. Nobody around him twenty-four-seven. He'd hole up in his condo outside Pittsburgh, take long, hot showers, sleep on an actual bed, order pizzas, stare at the tube, and stay there, avoiding traffic jams and jabbering humans until it was time to come back to work. Maybe he'd call Miranda.
The morning was brisk, dewy. Al pulled on a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and boots, crawled out of his tent and looked around. Despite himself, Jim's bullshit had crept into his head. Not that he believed for one second that some abominable bog creature was lurking in the mist. Or that the indentations in the dirt were monstrous footprints. No, it was crap, all of it. The woods were simply a bunch of trees full of wildlife. A place that belonged to animals. Where humans were just visitors.
Above him, birds began to wake up, began twittering. Al took a deep breath and stepped away from camp, following a narrow path, savoring his solitude. He wasn't going to go far. He just needed a few minutes with no soil or water samples to take, no destination to reach, no responsibilities, no conversation. Nobody.
He stayed on the path, careful in the shaded light, dodging occasional puddles of old rainwater, fallen branches, rocks, logs. He loved the stillness, the crunch of his footsteps on fallen leaves, the sense of being where nobody could find or bother him. And these woods fit him like a coat. Snug. Close. But up ahead he saw a burst of light, as if the woods were coming to an end. How was that possible? According to the pipeline charts, the forest continued for miles. Probably it was just a small clearing. Al kept going, and sure enough, he came to a small open field, maybe an acre. He stopped at the tree line, gazing across. The grass stirred. A startled rabbit darted away.
The sky was brightening. Al's stomach rumbled. Time to head back, make coffee. Wake up Jim and start the day. Al stopped beside a tree to take a leak. At first, he thought the sound was his piss hitting the ground, but then he noticed it was getting louder and coming from behind, as if someone was rustling the foliage, coming up the path. Shit. Had to be Jim. Couldn't the guy leave him alone for a half hour? He looked over his shoulder to tell Jim to back the hell off. But the figure moving through the trees wasn't Jim. It wasn't even human. Al stiffened. Was it a bear? No, not a bear. Bigger. And it was stomping. Lifting its knees like a damned drum major. Shit – what the hell was it? Al peered through branches and watched in disbelief. It was coming toward him, covered head to toe with fur. And – oh fuck – it had fangs.
Al didn't stick around to see more. He whirled, his wrist scraping a broken branch as he tore ahead. Twigs scratched his face, snagged his shirt, but he didn't dare slow down or look around. He just ran, zigzagging, not sure in which direction he was heading, hopping over rocks, skipping over puddles, his heart flipping, breath raging.
Finally, panting, he stopped behind a fat oak and peered around. Saw nothing. No hairy fanged creature. Even so, he couldn't stop shaking, couldn't catch his breath. What the fuck had just happened? Had he actually seen the Bog Man? Had Jim been right about it stomping around their campsite? No. Couldn't be. The Bog Man wasn't real – it was just another Big Foot or Yeti myth.
But what he'd seen had been real. Big and hairy and marching down the path.
Al's teeth were chattering. Christ, he'd somehow gouged his wrist; blood streamed all over his sleeve and hand. Damn. He pressed on the wound. Would have to clean it when he got back to camp. But where was camp? He looked around, trying to orient himself. Nothing looked familiar. Shit. Okay. He'd just go back to the clearing and find the path again. As soon as his legs would support him.
Still shaky, Al doubled back toward the clearing, his mind on the creature. He moved slowly, quietly, cautiously. When a twig crackled somewhere, he jumped. When a squirrel darted in front of him, he froze. When he finally got to the clearing, the sun was peering over the treetops. Full out morning. He scanned the perimeter for his path. Maybe the thing had left footprints. If so, he'd call the forest ranger and have him come out. They'd track it, catch it. Figure out what the hell it was. He walked along the edge of the field, looking for the path, picturing fangs. Not noticing a person in the trees behind him, aiming a rifle at his back.
Before the bullet shattered his ribs and ripped through his right ventricle, Al had three final thoughts. The first was that if they captured the creature, he'd be famous and the press would hound him. The second was that he wished he'd brought his rifle, so he could have caught it right then. And the third was, oh damn, with all his running around, he'd forgotten to zip up his fly.
Harper Jennings couldn't sleep. Not because of the hard ground or the close fabric of the tent. She'd slept in much less comfortable conditions. No, the reason she was awake was that, for the first time since her daughter had been born two and a half years ago, she was spending the night away from Chloe. She hadn't even been able to talk to her by phone. They'd tried, but out here there was no signal. She wasn't worried; Chloe would be fine with Vicki and Trent, hadn't even cried when they'd said goodbye. She was growing up – she went to preschool three mornings a week, had play dates with little friends. Swim lessons, music classes. Chloe had her own life, apart from Harper. The problem was that Harper had no life apart from Chloe.
Ever since her birth, Chloe had been Harper's companion, the focus of her attention and her passion. Her full-time job. Now the baby wasn't a baby any more; she was a little girl, and Harper needed to back off and find something else to do.
Hank let out a ragged snort, began snoring. They lay side by side, their sleeping bags zipped together. She nudged his back; the snoring stopped for a breath, then resumed, louder. Never mind. It didn't matter what symphony Hank performed; she wasn't going to sleep anyhow. She felt disconnected, as if she'd left a limb at home. Couldn't stop thinking about Chloe. What book had Vicki read to her last night? Had she brushed her teeth? Had she sung the goodnight song? Had Chloe asked for her mommy?
Stop it, she told herself. Cut it out. Nothing was wrong. Chloe was fine. Hank was fine. She was fine. It was okay – in fact, it was healthy to spend some time apart. She turned onto her side, brushing her leg against Hank's. In his sleep, he responded, reaching an arm out, covering her hip. His body was always warm when he slept. In a minute, his arm would weigh heavy, roasting her. But for now, it felt snug. Solid, reassuring. Harper stroked it, amazed. How was it possible that they were in their brand-new tent, camping the way they used to before Hank's accident? She'd never imagined that they'd do this again. But there they were.
When he'd suggested it, she'd gawked. 'Camping?'
Hank had grinned. 'Why not?'
She hadn't known where to begin; the list of 'why nots' was long. 'We don't even have equipment any more.'
His grinned had widened. 'Yes, we do.'
He'd bought new stuff. He'd rattled off the list. Harper had panicked. 'I don't know – neither of us is in shape to climb.'
'We won't do anything strenuous. Let's get away. Just us. Look, we haven't been alone together since Chloe was born.'
He'd been right. They hadn't been. Even before Chloe had joined them, they'd needed time alone, just the two of them. They'd had a lot to recover from: Harper's service in Iraq had left her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a permanently injured left leg. Hank's fall from their roof had almost killed him and left him with a limp and aphasia that had limited his ability to speak. And then, they'd been shaken by a series of freakish incidents – fraternity boys committing murders in the house next door, smugglers trying to steal the artifact collection Harper had been cataloging, terrorists kidnapping scientists at a symposium Hank had been attending. Now, Hank's aphasia had passed. He was speaking again, working as a geology professor at Cornell. But with the whirlwind of the last few years, they needed to reconnect. To be together, just Harper and Hank.
And so they'd gone camping. Chloe was gleefully spending the weekend at Aunt Vicki and Uncle Trent's, where she was completely in charge and over-indulged. And Harper was lying awake, listening to Hank snore and owls hoot, thinking about what to do with her life now that her baby didn't need her as much. Cornell's Archeology Department wasn't hiring. But even if they were, she couldn't imagine taking a regular job, working regular hours. Being away from Chloe all day every day.
Damn. She needed to let go, let Chloe grow up.
Maybe she and Hank should have another baby.
But wasn't that just postponing the question? Who was Harper? What did she want to do now that she finally had her degree? What did a PhD in archeology qualify her to do? She turned onto her other side, removing Hank's arm. Hearing a loud, sharp crack just outside the tent.
Reflexively, Harper rolled over and grabbed the Winchester. It was a conditioned response, left over from Iraq. She had her hands on the rifle and was ready to pull the bolt back when Hank grabbed her arm.
In the dark of their tent, she could see only his outline, a long lump of sleeping bag. She held still, listening. Hearing only the night.
'What are you doing?' He sounded clueless.
Neither of them moved. They heard nothing.
'What was that?' Hank asked. 'A flashback?'
No, it hadn't been a flashback. Why did everyone assume everything she did was because of a flashback? 'I heard something.' Actually, she wasn't sure that was true. She assumed that she'd heard something because she'd reacted as if they'd been under fire.
'What kind of something?' Hank reached out, took the rifle. 'An animal?'
Harper thought back, tried to recapture it. 'Maybe a gunshot.'
'I think so.'
'Harper. We're in the woods. People are hunting here. Hunters shoot. Gunshots are normal.' He pulled her close.
Wrapped in the sleeping bag with Hank, Harper didn't think about the sound that had startled her. When she heard it again, she didn't even react. They were in the woods, like Hank had said. Hunters were hunting. She dismissed the sound as soon as she heard it and concentrated instead on Hank's lips. By the time she crawled out of their tent an hour later, Harper had forgotten all about it.
If Josh lifted his knees, the new legs worked smoothly, much better than the old ones. He was pleased with himself. Hell, he should forget about being a damned mechanic, should work in prosthetics, making limbs for amputees – or maybe some of those arms for astronauts, the ones they used in space walks. Because, damn, he was good. He'd designed and built these all on his own. And the wide supports at the bottom fit perfectly into the molded plastic feet, balancing him securely. And the bear pelts were smooth, covered him like his own skin. In fact, as he stomped through the woods, looking down from seven feet and four inches, Josh almost forgot that he was wearing a costume. He felt comfortable, bending his knees, practicing his stride, moving swiftly, even running along paths, into campsites. Leaving footprints. But he didn't have time to accomplish much now. The eastern sky was already glowing. In minutes the sun would peek over the trees, and he didn't want some half-assed weekend hunter to see him and take shots, thinking he was a bear.
Josh turned around, heading back to the compound, satisfied with his new improved legs. Loping along through the woods, he figured the shortest way would be through the clearing and that, at this hour, probably nobody would be around. At the edge of the clearing, though, he saw somebody. A guy standing by a tree, taking a leak. The guy must have heard him because he turned to look at him. His mouth opened, his eyes popped, and he stood there, just staring as if he was seeing the Devil himself.
Josh couldn't help it. He let out a howl and lunged toward the guy, watched him take off like he'd gotten shot out of a cannon, smashing into low branches and weaving his way around trees. Josh followed for a few yards, lured by the smell of him. It was strong, more potent than the dead bearskin. And intoxicating. Josh had to force himself to stop chasing the guy and go back. But it was tough; the smell of fear was even more appealing than the smell of blood.
The Impala made a grumble and groaned.
'I told you a hundred times to fix the muffler.' Pete was jittery.
'Just be cool. Act normal.' Bob pulled into the campground just before sunrise, parked near the RV area.
'What if somebody stops us?'
'Jesus Holy Christ. Nobody's going to stop us.'
'What if they do?'
Bob's nostrils flared. 'We've talked about it. What don't you get yet? We're a couple of dudes backpacking for a day, that's all. We don't need no hunting permits. No reservations. Nothing.'
'You okay?' Bob turned, looked at him.
Pete nodded. He chewed his thumbnail.
'Because you're doing that thing you do with your eyes.'
'Where you blink real fast.'
Pete shrugged and tried not to blink.
'You got to tell me you're okay. Because once we get out of this car, there's no going back.'
Pete blinked a bunch of times. 'I know.' He reached for the car door.
'Not yet. Hold on. Let's double-check the packs.'
Pete twisted around and climbed onto his knees, facing the back seat.
Bob reached into the pocket of his down vest, took out a list. 'Okay. Dynamite.'
Bob read the list: cable, wiring, tool kit, blasting caps, detonators. Maps. Flashlights. Spare clothes. Tarp. Beer, beef jerky. Baggie of grass. Matches. Pipe bombs. Pete's phone with the GPS.
Bob's eyes were glowing. 'This is it, man.'
Pete's hands were shaking.
Excerpted from In the Woods by Merry Jones. Copyright © 2014 Merry Jones. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What should be a nail-biting tale full of suspense misses the mark a bit although there are qualities about this book that I liked. To me, it makes no sense that Harper and Hank would go on a camping trip in an area where hunting is a local and tourist pastime. Harper's PTSD is severe enough that she frequently slides into an episode , triggered by predictable events. Is it any surprise that gunshots and explosions would set her off? Why on earth would she subject herself to the sound of gunshots? Perhaps someday when she's farther along on her path to healing that might be part of her treatment but now? The other thing that concerned me is the behavior of one of the possible killers, behavior that can only be termed silly . Yes, a killer of this type is deranged and his...or her...behavior is going to be beyond what the normal human being can fully understand but we don't generally think of them as silly, do we? On the positive side, Ms. Jones has created enough scenarios to confuse the reader as well as the good guys. In fact, identifying the good guys is not always an easy thing to do and coming up with motivations that adequately explain things is a little dicey, too, especially regarding a pair of guys named Pete and Bob. Figuring out how the disparate motives and deaths and potential killer(s) all fit together is what kept me reading (although I wondered why the author wanted to hide the identity of the Sector Chief when I spotted him almost immediately). I have to make a couple of comments about the construction of this book. First, the author knows how to string a sentence together and grammatical/typo errors were infrequent. What I didn't like was the lack of chapter divisions; a simple paragraph break is just not enough, particularly when the scene is changing. Many times while I was reading, I'd have to stop for a few seconds to get my bearings, so to speak, and that always lessens the tension, not a good thing in a crime novel. On the whole, while I have some issues with In the Woods, it's a decent mystery and I certainly don't regret the time spent.