The modest two bedroom house sat on the hill in the neighborhood in what people would call a nice suburb, not affluent nor poor but the home to many mid level professionals or young couples just starting out. A silver Mercedes Benz, a few years old sat in the driveway and on the well trimmed yard was a garden of bright azaleas and zinnias, peppering the front of the cream colored house with spots of magenta, orange and yellow. Along the curb was a basketball hoop, leaning forward from so many boys practicing their dunks. Along the back fence was a sign, ‘Beware of Dog,’ and a half dozen chewed squeak toys strewn over the grass.
Inside, Kaliah Freeman stood at the counter, folding paper bags precisely with labels, ‘lunch, ‘snack’, and ‘dinner’. Each one held a balanced meal of sandwiches, fruit, and small tupperware of her son’s favorite potato salad. Into the cooler they went and she leaned over, peering around the kitchen wall, “Mal! Are you ready? Boy, you better not be on that X Box.”
She shook her head, her dark thick curls falling around her shoulders past elegant cheekbones. His father was coming to get him, another camping trip planned in the Ozark mountains. Kaliah remembered those forests and hills, Dave had taken her there once upon a time when they still lived in a dream of romance and summer nights under the stars. She shook the memory away and took a heavy duty Ziploc bag, dumping the dog food into it and packing it separately.
Her son Malcolm came out of his bedroom, lugging a metal frame backpack and his phone. She gave him a side eye look, “Remember what I told you about the phone.”
His face reddened under golden brown skin, then he shoved the Android into his pocket. “I just wanna take videos of Bella, it’ll be her first time off leash out in the woods.”
Kaliah smiled, her deep brown eyes sparkling with pride despite her warning. Malcolm had been begging her for a dog since he was a boy and for his fourteenth birthday, she finally relented. Bella was a pitbull mix, slated for euthenasia if she was not adopted and her son had fallen in love with the brindle and white dog. She had been shy and unsocialized but Malcolm had spent his own allowance on training classes at the petstore and Bella had blossomed under his attention and affection.
“Alright, just make sure you keep an eye on her, don’t let her wander too far. Those rednecks will shoot dogs just because, especially pits,” Kaliah said, handing him the bagged dog food.
“Rednecks like dad?” Malcolm teased, his smile as charming as his father’s infectious grin. While he looked more like her, with his light brown skin and tousled curls and deep dark eyes his smile was all David.
Kaliah raised her brow and shook her head, then checked her phone, “He should be here any minute, finish packing.”
Dave MacCready steered his battered truck through the suburban streets, expertly piloting the old F250. He hated suburbs; the impersonal, cookie-cutter houses seemed less like homes, more like cages. The people within were desperate, harried, rushing from job to home to bed just to start all over again, taking their two days off a week to seek solace in television and online shopping before dragging themselves back to their daily drudgery. Dave didn't have a TV; he preferred spending his time doing, not sitting, and he was too far into the mountains for cable and satellite to be worth the trouble anyway.
He spotted Kaliah's modest home and broke into a grin, pulling up alongside the curb. His Sig rested on the bench seat beside him and he tucked it into the glovebox, out of sight. Mal knew about it; Dave hid nothing from his son, and the boy knew where the weapon was. Still, Kaliah didn't like them and so out of respect for the mother of his child he put on the show, keeping it stowed when the boy was around.
He'd made other concessions, too. For years he hadn't bothered with a driver's license, insurance, a carry permit; these documents were a scam, the government's way of selling a man rights that should be his by God's design. But again, he'd conceded to Kaliah's wishes. She hadn't wanted their boy picking up his rebel ways, and so he'd submitted himself to the indignity of it and gotten himself licensed.
The old truck rattled to a stop and he pushed open the door, hopping down out of the jacked-up rig and stretching his muscles loose. He was a tall-ish man, a shade under six feet, with a frame packing a good 180 pounds of lean muscle. His build was accentuated by the cut of his Wranglers and the fit of his flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to show sun-bronzed skin and a map of small scars, the legacy of a man who spent his life doing manual labor.
He started for the house, feeling his heart kick up a few notches as it always did at the prospect of seeing his boy.
“Mom! Dad’s here!” Malcolm hollered out, looking through the drapes when Bella started to bark and wag her tail madly. If there was anyone she loved more than Mal it was David. The dog barked and spun in circles, seemingly chasing her tail for a mad few seconds until the door was opened.
Malcolm beamed a bright smile, though he was growing taller and broadening he still had the air of boyish joy at the simple things like seeing his dad and the prospect of getting away from his beloved but overbearing mother. They shared that smile, and the boy was probably going to be as tall, if not a little taller than his father once he was grown. He held open the door, motioning at Bella to sit which she did, obediently but for a wiggle in her rump as David entered the house.
Kaliah stepped out, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She was dressed down for the weekend, a pink halter top and blue jeans and designer sandals, showing off her pedicure matching her French tip manicure. She looked Dave over, smiling a little. He was handsome as ever, still strong and fit, a natural muscle that came from work not the gym.
“How was the drive?” she asked, looking past the boy and dog and met David’s eyes.
"It was easy enough," Dave said. He eyed her for a moment, as he always did. He liked to think they still had a spark somewhere beneath the differing opinions, the diverging life goals. She had wanted a career, he had wanted a family. They just weren't meant to be.
He bent and pulled Mal into a hard hug, kissing him on top of the head and taking a moment just to enjoy being close to him. He was getting to the age where he wasn't big on public affection, and while Dave understood he still missed the days when his son could climb into his lap while they sat on the porch. He understood, but he still took his hugs when he could get them.
"You ready to go?" He asked, releasing Mal to give Bella a brisk rubdown, grinning as the dog leaned against him and licked wildly at his hands.
“Yeah, I’ll put my stuff in the truck, Mom packed food,” Malcolm hefted the metal frame old fashioned backpack and slung it over one shoulder then picked up the cooler, his young wiry muscles straining under the weight of ice and Kaliah’s potato salad.
The dog bounced along with him, now trusted to stay at his side and not dash down the street. A miracle every time she witnessed it. Kaliah motioned to David, looking up at him, “He’s been looking forward to this trip and since school starts soon I won’t deny him but you need to talk to your son about his behavior with girls online.”
She crossed her arms under her ample chest and gave him a direct look, “He was exchanging pictures, inappropriate pictures, with a girl from another school. You know it’s a crime if they got caught, they were both underage. Not to mention immoral for both of the kids. He’s at that age now.”
Dave winced, glancing over his shoulder at his son.
"Damn," he muttered. "Well… I'll have a talk with him. We're gonna be in the backwoods, good place to have that kinda talk. Less awkward that way." His voice was a mellow baritone, heavy on the country drawl, a stark contrast to Kaliah's more precise city-talk.
"I'll leave the punishment to you, I know that ain't really my place, but we'll discuss it. See if I can't… I dunno," he shrugged. "Maybe get some sense into him."
Kaliah sighed and shook her head, “Leave the punishment to me, of course. What else am I here for, but to feed him and punish him.”
She turned, her long curls swaying as she walked back into the kitchen and took something out of the refrigerator. “And remember his medicine.”
She handed him the inhaler in a Ziploc bag, “He doesn’t need it too much but if he’s up in elevation or breathing in dust, he might. Don’t let him lose it.”
Kaliah put her hands on her hips, “Bring him back to me in one piece, David. I’ll be home all weekend, prepping for trial, so if you need anything, call me.”
As if she would go anywhere else, it was work even on the days off, that’s what a salary did. Kaliah put her hand on his arm, “Keep him away from any of your family, he’s been asking more questions that I don’t want to answer.”
He took the inhaler without comment, brushing off her jibe about disciplining Mal. At the mention of his family his eyes grew hard, the muscles in his strong jaw clenching.
"My kin don't come around," he said, his voice harsh. His anger wasn't directed at Kaliah, but at his estranged family. "The Old Man knows if he comes near my boy I'll kill him on the spot. Ain't seen him since Mal was born and I pulled that gun on him in the parking garage."
Her warm brown eyes darkened at the memory and she looked at him, “I recall. I don’t think I’ve ever hated and loved so hard at the same time before that moment. Alright, I trust you’ll keep him safe, I always do. I just can’t help but worry, Mal’s getting grown now. At least he thinks he is and I worry.”
Kaliah brushed her hands together, then gestured to him, “Time to get going, I’ll walk you out. Did you eat? I packed some extra sandwiches and such, the ham and swiss. He loves the same damn sandwich you do, must be the white boy in him.”
She grinned as she teased him and put her hand on David’s arm, “Drive safe now.”
"I always do," he said, his grin matching her own. He looked at Mal waiting in the truck. "Oh, uh… I got that permit. For the pistol."
“Good, if you have to keep that damn thing at least you’ll do it legal,” Kaliah said, glancing over at him as they walked out, “One less thing they can try to arrest you for, David. Sometimes you gotta play in their boundaries.”
Dave grimaced. "One more thing they get to tax me for," he muttered. He reached out and gave her shoulder a soft squeeze. "I'll have the sat phone. I'll have him call once we get there, and again when we've set camp."
She walked out to the truck and leaned on the window where Malcolm was waiting, “You’re gonna leave without giving me a hug?”
“Sorry,” he slipped out of the truck, glancing around to see if any of his buddies were out and then hugged her quickly, grimacing as she tousled his hair and kissed his head.
“I love you, be good,” she told him, “And have fun.”
“Thanks, Mom, love you too,” Malcolm said, then called to Bella to hop up, putting her between himself and his dad.
She waved at them as they pulled out, heading down the street and out of the city, towards the Ozark hills.
>Boone County, AR
>David MacCready residence
Two hours later the Ford came to a clattering halt, this time on a wooded dirt road. Dave opened the door and took a deep breath, savoring the clean mountain air. His house was off the beaten path, back in the trees, the dirt drive unmarked. Unless you knew it was there, it was easy to drive right past it in the dark.
"Grab your stuff," he said. "I'll get the cooler." He leaned over and took his Sig from the glovebox, tucking the holster into his waistband as he climbed from the truck. A quick sweep of the dirt drive showed no tire tracks but his own, the only prints those of himself, his mammoth dog, and a few whitetail deer.
Dave pointed at the tracks as Mal got out of the truck.
"What's that?" He asked, picking up the cooler.
Malcolm tucked his phone away, it was useless out here anyway except as a camera. He smiled at the pines and oaks towering just past the cabin and then climbed out of the truck, clicking his tongue for Bella to follow. She jumped down, immediately sniffing the area around her boy and snuffled the large paw prints, her whip tail wagging.
He looked down where his dad pointed and studied the tracks. Boots with familiar treads, Rufus’ paw prints and the crescent pair that he knew to be a deer. “Bambi’s been through here,” he commented, then gestured with his chin towards the direction away from the driveway. “Going east. And Rufus followed and you had already left. I think it looks like their prints cross yours but it’s hard to tell.”
Malcolm crouched and looked close but the edges were blurred in the sandy soil.
Dave nodded proudly and picked up the cooler, walking around to join Mal.
"Buck or doe?"
Malcolm furrowed his brow, staring at the cloven hoof tracks but nothing manifested itself so he could tell the difference. He shrugged finally then looked up at his dad, "I'm not sure. I forgot I guess."
Dave grinned at him and hiked the cooler up onto his shoulder. He pointed at the track Mal was examining, then traced the trail back about 20 feet. A small cluster of pellets lay in the trail, loosely grouped.
"Doe," he said. He put a hand on Mal's shoulder. "The buck turds clump up. Does leave 'em loose, like rabbit shit. See how it's dark brown, but not slimy? It's a few hours old. Hasn't started to dry up. Gotta look at the whole picture. Everything'll tell you a story." "
His son followed where he pointed and stood over the deer feces and rubbed the back of his neck. "I wonder why they poop different. But that's pretty cool, Dad."
He brightened up, "Hey, do you think I could shoot your gun this weekend? Mom said..."
He stopped himself then tucked his hands in his jacket, "I'm old enough to, don't you think?"
"We can bring one of the rifles," Dave said. "No pistols yet. Get a few years getting used to the rifles first. Less barrel means more accidents if safety ain't second nature."
He put his hand on Mal's shoulder and steered him towards the house, hiding a grin at his son's question. He'd maintained his love of firearms, and was pleased that Mal seemed to be developing an interest of his own.
It was a modest affair, built half a century before and carefully maintained by its various owners over the years. The exterior was wood paneling, the paint faded and peeling but the planks themselves still strong. A carport housed a pair of ATV's and a battered dirt bike, as well as a cherry picker and various automotive equipment, and a small shed held a variety of tools.
"Rufus is out somewhere," Dave said, digging out his keys. He let the door swing open and stepped aside for Mal to enter.
"Can I shoot the AK? Like full auto, brrrrat tatat" he pretended to cradle a rifle, aiming it down at the truck.
Malcolm walked into the familiar old cabin, Bella starting to follow but paused at her training and whined, looking up at Dave, thumping her tail.
"She sleeps on my bed at home, can she come in?" He asked, glancing at his father.
"Go on," Dave said, nodding at the dog. She hurried inside, nails scrabbling at the wood floor.
"We can shoot the WASR," he said, walking the cooler to the small kitchen that stood at the rear of the house, separated from the rustic living room by a breakfast bar littered with bills. "But you gotta promise it'll be our secret." He gave Mal a sideways look, a hint of mischief in his eyes. "That gun ain't exactly legal. I gotta trust you not to go telling your friends about it."
Malcolm grinned his father’s grin, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of doing something he shouldn’t, even with permission. Then he said, “I won’t tell them or Mom, you know how she is. She hates those guns, says they’re nothing but people killers and should be banned.”
He shrugged his angular shoulders, his frame broadening faster than he could fill into it. “You know, because of all the school shootings and stuff.”
His dark eyes flicked to his Dad, uncertain for a moment at the conflict of the issue. “We had active shooter drills last week.”
"Yeah, well, that's something your mom and I never saw eye to eye on," Dave said. "Guns are tools, boy. No different than a knife or a hammer. You can kill a man with your hands, if you want."
“I guess,” Malcolm said, then put his bag against the wall, taking out the dog food his mom insisted on packing and stuck it in the pantry. He was quiet, his brow had the same furrow Dave would get when something troubled him. Finally he said what was on his mind.
“Hey, Dad? You ever have to kill anyone? I mean, I heard about people in the hills and stuff, Mom won’t tell me but I looked up stuff online,” the boy awkwardly tried to explain what his mother refused to talk about, the name MacCready.
“You don’t ask a man that, son,” Dave said, his voice firm. For a moment the friendly country boy was gone, replaced by a hard-eyed man with a face carved from stone. He shook off the memory of cool autumn air, a soft breeze, and a single gunshot that had silenced the birds for miles around. Then he was back, his calloused hand coming to rest gently on Mal’s shoulder. “Come on. Get your shit put away, we’re burnin’ daylight and I’ve got something to show you.”
Malcolm swallowed hard, then nodded “Yes, sir.”
He smiled hesitantly, then called his dog to show her the bedroom and put away his things for the weekend. The boy changed into the Red Wing boots he had got for his birthday, nicely kept and clean but not for long in the Ozark hills and creeks. Malcolm got the leash for Bella, just in case, and shouted, “Ready!”
Mal bounced out of his room, his tight curly hair bouncing as well, he was trying to grow it out but his mother had her limit. Nothing past the collar because of school though his curls tended to grow out rather than down. He flashed a grin, “So what’s up, what’re you gonna show me?”
Dave headed for his own room, disappearing into the closet. A few moments later he returned, dropping a camouflage pack on the ground at Mal’s feet.
“Here,” he said. “Marine Corps issue. Figured it’s time we upgrade you from that old ALICE pack you’re toting around.” He knelt beside the pack, pointing out features as he went. “Top pouch, canteen pouches, belly band, back padding...You can fit every damn thing you need in here. And that smaller pack unhooks from it, so you can just carry that around like a backpack. We’re gonna be really roughing it this round, no four-wheelers. Everything we bring is goin’ on our backs.”
Malcolm blinked at the gift then knelt down, opening up pouches and checking out the padding. "This is what real Marines use? Badass. It looks more comfortable than the metal frame."
He tried out the backpack, "It's too bad we have to have see through bags at school or I'd use the small one. This feels a lot better, so where are we going to if we can't take the four-wheelers."
There was a trace of disappointment in his voice as he loved driving the ATVs around the trails and open clearings. But whatever his Dad had in mind it was probably good, it wasn't homework or chores like his mom would put him through on a beautiful Saturday. It was bad enough she signed him up for summer school.
“Well...That depends how much of a bad ass you are,” Dave said lightly. There was a hint of challenge in his voice, his eyes shining. “I was thinkin’ we could go whole hog this round. No GPS, no wheels...None of that pussy shit. Hell, we don’t even have to take a tent. Build our own shelter, eat what we find… Like I said. If you’re man enough.”
He flashed back, just for a moment, to nights spent in the woods with nothing but a rifle, a pack, and his father’s hard gaze as he dug a hole to sleep in. He clamped down hard on the memory, pushing it away.
“Course I’ll be right there with you,” he said. “You ain’t gonna be out there alone.”
Malcolm drew up straight under the weight of his bag and looked his dad square in the eyes, like he had been taught to do. “I’m ready, I’m not a pussy. Let’s do this, we’ll make Bear Grylls look like a Girl Scout.”
He chuckled, then called to Bella who was eager to go, whomping his legs with her tail as she felt the anticipation of departure.
“Alright then,” Dave said, nodding. He reached out and tousled his son’s hair, pride swelling in him. Seeing his boy so ready to lose himself in the natural world brought him joy like nothing else. He lived for these weekends. “Go get your shit packed. There’s waterproof bags in that pack, for clothes. Oh, shit, and call your mom. I told her I’d have you call when we got here.”
>Boston Mountains, Boone County, AR
Sweat trickled down Malcolm’s back, the stains spreading on his gray t-shirt under the padded straps of his new backpack. They were on a high bald ridge, the sun beating down on them and he could feel perspiration stinging his eyes. Still, he did not complain, a man did not complain about trivial unavoidable inconveniences. That was what his Dad taught him and the boy was still young enough to look at his father like he was Superman. Besides, the view was incredible, the Arkansas valley opening up thick with summer trees and every now and then the glimmer of the river when the sun struck it. The far side of the valley was a plateau and it stretched out in rolling dips until it met the sky.
They started to descend, the exposed shale and sandstone giving way to tangled grass brush thick with blackberry bramble that was weighed down with ripening fruit and long thorns that guarded it. The fresh berries were delicious but they also attracted black bears and wild hogs, dangerous creatures that Malcolm learned to give a wide respectful berth. As the trail narrowed between the trunks of towering oaks and hickory trees they were finally blessed with shade. In the dappled shadows, small creatures dashed from the dogs who ran ahead. Bella enjoying her freedom from the backyard and Rufus, the huge mastiff that spent his days roaming, without collar or fence, was now marking the trees to add to his territory. He belonged both to Dave and himself, returning home when he wished but he never failed to come when the man called.
Malcolm could hear the distinct tapping of a woodpecker and squinted up to see if he could find and identify it. As he walked, peering up at the taller trees, his foot caught a root and he stumbled forward.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, wincing when his hands scraped the ground.
He pushed himself up with some difficulty, the heavy pack threatening to tip him forward. Malcolm swiped his hands against his jeans, checking the abrasions. It was not deep but should be cleaned. His mother would have fussed over doing it right away but the boy shrugged it off, not wanting to cause his Dad to have to wait on him.
He bent to brush his knees when he saw it. The ivory colored knob of some type of leg bone poking up from the leaf litter of last autumn. Malcolm brushed it away and picked up the bone, it was long and dense, probably a femur. His skin prickled looking at it and his mind jumped to the possibilities.
It was probably a deer. Or a bear. His dad would know.
“Hey, Dad! Look what I found!”
Dave heard the boy go down and slowed, throwing a glance over his shoulder. He resisted the urge to run to him, to pull him to his feet and make sure he was okay. Instead he hiked up his pack and adjusted the hang of the WASR10 rifle that dangled from a sling over his shoulder. His son had been dying to shoot the AK for months, so he had finally relented, bringing out the rifle and a couple of magazines. One rode in the weapon, the others were stowed in Dave’s pack. He’d also exchanged his compact Sig for something a little more woods-worthy, a hefty Ruger GP100 chambered in the venerable .357 magnum. It was more suited to putting down angry woodland creatures than the 9mm, and if he fell on his ass, slid down a muddy hill, and found himself face-to-balls with a pissed off black bear it would still fire reliably.
“What’d ya find?” He called.
Malcolm held up the bone, it was picked clean but for a few bits of tendon dried to gristle where the hinge like joint for a knee on a bipedal would go. There was no mistake for anyone that had taken time to study skeletal anatomy of both humans and animals. No other creature was built like that.
“It’s got some teeth marks,” he commented, still looking at it and then at his Dad. “Kinda big for a deer but...what do you think?”
Dave frowned at the sight of the bone. As he walked to his son he felt the hair on his arms stand up, a chill running through him.
“Put that down, son,” he said. “That’s…” He shook his head and lowered his voice, not wanting to frighten Mal. “That’s human, son. Go on and put it down.”
Malcolm looked at the bone in his hand and dropped it like it had burned him. “Jesus...what’s it doing out here?”
He rubbed his hand once again against his pants then gave a panicky thought to his skinned palm and touching some dead guy’s leg bone. Malcolm edged away from it, both sickened and curious. What if there were other parts around, right where they were standing? The boy looked down at his feet and around but saw nothing in the weeds.
“What do we do with it?” he asked, looking back over at his dad.
Dave walked over and put a heavy hand on top of the boy’s head, pushing back so that Mal was forced to look up at him.
“Hey,” he said. His voice was gentle, his eyes holding his son’s gaze. “It’s alright. He must’ve got lost. We’re in the Bostons, it’s rough country. That happens, okay?” He patted Mal on the cheek.
“Get your map out,” he said. “You been keeping track of where we are? I want you to mark us on the map. That way we can call this in once we make camp. Let the Rangers know we found him.”
Malcolm looked up at his Dad, then nodded. "Yeah, that's probably what happened. Poor guy though."
He dropped his gaze, glancing at the bone in the grass. He shuddered and wiped his hand again against his jeans but did as he was told. The map was in a waterproof bag despite it being laminated, it never hurt to take extra care of a life saving tool. Malcolm wondered briefly if the dead guy had lost his map or ran out of water. Or maybe a black bear or cougar got him.
The boy glanced up, his thoughts broken by what his dad said. He frowned, "Rangers? But aren't they like forest cops. Feds even."
Dave grimaced, not just at the truth in the boy's words, but because he'd said them at all. He couldn't stand cops, hated the Feds; it felt different coming from his son.
"Yeah, they're cops," he said slowly. "But… You know, this guy probably had a family. Got people out there somewhere wonderin' where he went. If he got hurt, ran out on them… They deserve to know what happened, right? We can at least do that for 'em."
Malcolm considered his words, then shrugged, "I guess you're right, at least he's been dead a while so they can't blame you for it. You know?"
He opened the map, then looked back up at his dad. "And you're right, he probably had somebody missing him. It's sad...I mean he was probably all alone up here."
Malcolm turned his attention back to the map trying to figure out where exactly along the ridge they had come down as it branched into three trails. He furrowed his brow, had they passed the other forks or just continued on the main path. There had been a large boulder just past the highest point and... Malcolm sighed and scratched his arm.
"I can't remember which path had the boulder," he admitted, them looked over at the bone resting in the grass. “I think we went down the middle then veered right, away from the edge. Into the woods, I’m just not sure how far.”
Dave leaned over and studied the map a moment, then tapped their location with his fingertip.
“We’re about here,” he said. “I’ll show you how I worked it out later tonight, okay?” He looked down at the bone.
“That’s why I teach you this shit, you know. Nature’s a hard bitch. Killed more people than anything else in our history. If that guy’d known just a little bit more, he might’ve gotten home okay. That’s why you gotta pay attention to what I teach you.” Dave gave Mal a little punch on the shoulder and grinned at him. “You’re doin’ good though. You got our area within a few miles, enough for a rescue party if you were in trouble.”
Malcolm watched his father’s face when he spoke, paying rapt attention. Despite the teasing he took for camping and fishing, being called ‘country’ and such, he enjoyed every moment because it was with his dad. He could not really remember a time when his parents lived together, they separated when he was still a toddler. These times were special and he only wanted his father’s approval. Besides, who knew when the zombie apocalypse might happen and Malcom damn sure would be ready.
“Yes, sir,” he said, nodding at the map and sighed, looking at the bone. “He’s probably been out a long time, I found it under last years leaves and it’s pretty dry.”
“Yeah, looks a little chewed on, but that’s normal.” Dave pointed out the small marks on the bone, divots where tiny teeth had worried at the meat and sinew. “Somethin’ big, like a cat or a bear, it would’ve broken bone. Crunched it up. These are scavenger marks. Like on that deer last year, remember?”
Malcolm stood up, folding the map over and nodded, “I remember, probably like raccoons or coyotes or vultures.”
The boy stood quiet for a moment then turned to look up at Dave, “Can we go now?”
“Yeah, we can go.” He put a hand on his son’s shoulder and steered him away from the bone, back down the trail. The dogs had stopped up ahead, Bella sniffing at trees, Rufus waiting with his gaze trained on Dave. The big mutt did as he wished whenever Dave turned him loose, but when they were together he took his directions from the man, courtesy of years spent building trust and the handful of schutzhund training manuals in Dave’s basement. He sat patiently as man and boy approached, only ranging ahead again after Dave had released him.
“This gonna bother you?” Dave asked after a few minutes. He eyed his son sidelong, gauging his reaction. “Finding a body, that’s not a small thing. Kind of freaky, right?”
Malcolm walked along, just to the side of his father and shrugged, “I dunno, maybe. But I’ll be okay, it’s just kinda freaky, yeah. Like I feel bad for the guy, I wonder who he was. It must suck to be scattered around, he’s dead so I guess he doesn’t know but still. Maybe he’s in heaven.”
Bella ran ahead, the bright white markings against her dark brindle coat like beacons in the shadows of the thick summer woods. She sniffed here and there, digging at the leaf litter and then running back to Rufus to fuss around with him but he did not return her invitation to play. The boy watched her with a smile, taking his mind off the bone and whistled to her, watching as she bounded back, pink tongue lolling out of the powerful jaws. He pet the pitbull mutt as she licked his hands, wanting the comfort of the dog close even if his dad was near.
They made it another hundred yards before Dave slowed, putting a hand on Mal’s shoulder to stop him. Rufus stood further down the trail. The tan beast’s body was rigid, his shoulders squared and his floppy ears perked up. There was a wariness to his stance that Dave had long since learned to trust. A predator would have set off a barrage of harsh warning barks; this was something else.
“Slow down boy,” Dave said, pulling Mal a little behind him. He sniffed the air and caught it; beneath the scent of pine was a sickly sweet, cloying stench. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
“Somethin’s dead up ahead, smell that?” Dave said, relaxing a little. Animals died all the time. On his own Rufus would’ve probably gone to see if there was a meal worth scavenging, but his training had him waiting on his master. Dave patted Mal on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go take a look. Might be something cool. It’s big, if I can smell it from here.”
It stunk, whatever it was. Malcolm scrunched his nose, it was like the time a raccoon died under their porch but stronger, especially as they got closer. He tagged along behind Dave, keeping Bella at his heel. “It really stinks,” he commented as the wind shifted and blew lightly on his face.
“It does.” They moved up the trail and when they reached Rufus Dave stopped. Warning bells started to ring at the back of his mind. Rufus was massive; Kaliah had called him a monster on more than one occasion. Part mastiff, part shepherd, part something else, his head reached Dave’s hips and his chest was big enough around that Mal could just barely encircle it. He was every bit of 150 pounds, and at four years old he was an uncut male in his prime. He was trembling.
The mammoth dog patrolled his chosen territory zealously, guarding it against all comers, and it had been years since Dave had seen signs of bear, cougar, or coyote around his little homestead. For something to scare a dog like Rufus…
Dave stepped in front of Mal, unslinging his AK. He rested a hand on Rufus’s head for a moment, giving the dog’s ears a scratch. Rufus whined.
“Mal, stay here,” he said. “I’ll be right back, okay? Rufus, pass auf.” Rufus moved obediently to Mal’s side, a low rumble in his chest serving as both a warning to whatever was bothering him and acknowledgement of his duty to protect Mal.
“Dad?” he asked tentatively when Dave made him stay put. He peered into the distance but the low light through the trees cut down visibility. The dogs sat on either side of him and Bella pressing against his leg, shuffling nervously as she felt the tension in the boy.
“Just stay put,” Dave said. He gave the boy a reassuring smile and then lied to his face. “Probably just a bear putting a scare into Rufus. Probably eatin’ whatever’s rotten. I’ll take a look and shoo it off, it’ll be fine.”
He winked at his son and then stepped into the trees, quietly pushing the safety lever down into automatic and racking the bolt as gently as he could. He left the weapon live and pushed deeper.
The stench grew as he walked. It raised gooseflesh on his arms, and a moment later his heart began to pound. The woods were silent. No birds. No bugs. How could there not be any bugs? Something this rancid, the woods should sound like a buzzsaw. He should have been chewing flies with every breath, but the trees were silent, the air still, the forest around him dead except for that damned stink.
He reached the first of the heads ten feet in. It was a hog, skinned but not cleaned, the flesh rotten. The tip of a stake was buried in the meat of what used to be its neck, so the empty sockets stared up at the sky, and the blood that had run down onto the stake was black. He could see another head off to his right, this one a goat judging by the horns, then a third further on, then a fourth. Four heads, all rotted, pigs and goats both, forming what looked like the curve of a circle.
The trees within the circle were sparse, each of them dead and dry, their bare branches revealing the rest of the circle on the far side. The ground was littered with a thick coating of brown leaves, despite the summer season. His unease grew, but something within pulled him onwards, and with a muttered prayer he stepped into the circle. In the center was a single large stone, flat topped, rectangular, about three feet tall. It was a little longer than a man, a flat, matte black. Bones were piled around the base, crusted with old blood, bits of flesh still clinging to them where it hadn’t rotted off and fallen to the forest floor in rancid clumps.
Dave walked on, eyes on the stone. He could hear nothing but the pounding of his heart, and he felt his stomach turn. He neared the stone with weak knees; the air around him felt wrong, and he tightened his grip on his rifle. As he drew closer he saw the body. A human corpse, fresher than the staked heads but not by much. It was nude, female judging by the build, but it had bloated and then burst, its ruptured gut shrinking back down to collapse against its spine. He drew closer still. Then a thunderous bark pulled him back to himself.
Rufus barked again and Dave backpedaled, reeling away from the stone and heading for his son. He crashed through the trees, snapping the safety back on the rifle as he went, and when he stumbled onto the trail he grabbed Mal hard by the shoulder as Rufus barked a third time, the big dog snarling and curling his lips back from his teeth. Bella began to bark as well and Dave gave Mal’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Let’s go, we’re going,” Dave said. He was pale, shaking, his grey-blue eyes combing the trees around them. “Go.”
Malcolm stared wide eyed as his dad came rushing back out, his mouth hung open slightly at his expression. Fear jolted through him once Rufus had raised his hackles and started barking insistently and looking into his father's eyes he felt it again.
"Dad?" His voice rose and cracked when he saw Dave’s expression. "Dad what's wrong?"
Dave ignored his question, half guiding and half shoving him back down the trail. As the monstrous scene fell further behind them Dave’s mood changed, the fear vanishing to be replaced by anger; anger that somebody had so defiled his mountain, fury that something was endangering his his neighbors. A righteous rage that his son might be at risk. His eyes still scanned the woodline to either side of the narrow trail, but now there was murder in them, not terror. If something, anything, presented itself, he was ready to send it straight to hell to keep his boy safe.
“Just keep walking,” Dave said firmly. “We’re goin’ home. I’ll explain in a bit, just keep your eyes open and keep movin’. Okay?”
Malcolm nodded and said nothing, walking quickly, glancing at the heavy brush and tangles of blackberries. Bella stuck close, her tail now pressed to her hindquarters as they left the area of the rancid smell.
They walked for several minutes, Mal glancing over his shoulder at his Dad and the hard expression on his face and the readiness in which he cradled the rifle. Once the smell receded he found himself starting to relax. It was too bad they had to go home, he had wanted to try his hand at making a shelter.
“Dad, do we have to go back, maybe we just go around that spot,” Malcolm suggested, hitching up his pack as they started back up towards the ridge.
Dave glanced at his son, thinking for a moment. “We gotta go back,” he said finally. “Look, back there...I found another body. This one’s fresher. And it wasn’t an animal that got ‘em, you understand? We’re gonna tell the law, and let them sort it out. But I ain’t gonna be the man who has his boy sleepin’ in the boonies with somebody like that on the loose. Okay?”
He gave him an uneasy grin. “Your mom would kill me if she found out, and we don’t want that, right?”
Malcolm’s face registered shock and he looked around himself as if expecting the boogy man to jump out of the bushes. “You mean he got killed, like murdered? Jesus...yeah, we better go.”
He glanced at his Dad, “I guess cops are better than some killer running around.”
“Yeah, it was real bad son,” Dave nodded. “We’ll just hump it back home, alright? Tell you what, we can camp out by the house, okay? Call it a training run. We’ll build our shelter just a mile in. Got the creek there for water, it’ll be good practice for later on. That sound okay?”
His son nodded, the dark curls bobbing along and he gave his dad a bright grin, trying to be upbeat about the situation that was rather frightening. At least he knew his Dad could use that rifle and would, he had no doubt. He would blast any weirdo murderer that might come around. “Yeah, that sounds good. Maybe I could do some shooting?”
The man laughed and put a hand on Mal’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze before taking up the rifle again. “Yeah, we can shoot.” He thought for a moment. “Keep it quiet from your mother, and I’ll let you keep a shotgun in the shelter. Just in case. Our secret though, okay?”
Mal leaned into his Dad briefly then walked along, “A shottie? Yes! I swear I never tell her about the guns, you know how she is. She wouldn’t even buy me a super soaker.”
“She just worries,” Dave said. “Now step it out. We’ve got about nine miles to go, and about half that’s gonna be uphill.”
>Two Weeks Later
>David MacCready residence, Boone County AR
1900 was not the usual time Robert Kopelmann liked to do these things. People were sometimes more receptive during the day and he always tried to warm up his “assistant”, a term of probably unprofessional endearment he had for those he’d had to interrogate in the past like a magician and a stranger from the crowd. He found the people he was supposed to recruit were no different. He looked behind himself at the two men that were sent with him. The Program’s Office of Security employed nothing but former JSOC, and mostly DEVGRU at that, which meant that David MacCready was going to open his door and see a lot of things he absolutely did not like.
Robert himself, a veteran spook, dressed in the finest not-spook slacks and polo that would not confirm nor deny to anyone he was DoD, and JSOC at that. David’s own life story in a Manila folder, everything every Federal Agency had on David and his family, as well as pictures of Black Slabs in everywhere they had been previously found and dealt with, from Pakistan to Pennsylvania. And two burly, silent towers of meat and beard flanking him. A bunch of strangers framed by the darkening sky. Robert sighed, pushing up his wire-frame glasses, this may just be the day he gets his 9mm retirement plan. Even so, Robert put on his best friendly grin and rapped his knuckles on the door, skin crawling with the moment it cracked open and let a blast of .00 buckshot through his face.
A moment passed, then another, before the locks on the door clacked and it swung in about two inches. Dave eyed the strangers on his porch in silence, sizing them up, taking in their clothing, the way they held themselves. He let the door open another few inches before bracing it with his foot. Inside, he held the barrel of his Ruger flush against the door. He’d rather have the capacity of the Sig, but the door was solid-core and the .357 would carry more punch if he had to fire through it.
“Y’all are feds,” he said. It wasn’t a question. His blue eyes tracked across the three men before settling on the man in the glasses.
“This is about that body.” Again, not a question. He was silent for a moment. “I’m gonna let the hammer down on my gun, so don’t shoot me. Then I’ll let you inside. Just you. The jackboots can wait on the porch.” He glanced at the larger of the two bodyguards. “My dog’s around. Big tan fella. He won’t bother you, but if you shoot him you’re gonna get a gunfight instead of...Whatever you’re here for.”
At the mention of letting the hammer down on a gun that was ready to kill him a moment before, Robert’s grin ticked up, “No gunfights today. My…” Friends was the wrong word, they hadn’t even spoken to each other on the ride here, “Associates can stay outside. My name’s Bob. Just Bob.”
He maintained his composure even though to him, he was only speaking to a dark crack in the door pointing a wheelgun at his brow. “You may let me in whenever you’d like.” Sooner than later, Robert left unsaid.
Dave watched him for a beat, then lowered the hammer on the Ruger with a click. He let the door swing open and backed away a few steps, keeping the gun in his off-hand.
“Dave,” he said. “Just Dave. Though I figure you know the rest of it.” He nodded his head at the folder in Bob’s hand, then gestured to a battered leather sofa in his small living room. There was no television; instead the sofa, a beat up love-seat, and a single large recliner all faced a coffee table, the arrangement one designed for conversation rather than digital entertainment.
“Take a seat. Close the door on your way in, the A/C is workin’ overtime this year as it is. I’d offer you a beer, but I don’t know if the visit’s gonna be a pleasant one yet.” He gave Bob a small grin, then walked over and dropped into the chair, resting his gun on a small side table, the muzzle away from his guest but still in reach.
Robert stepped through the threshold, readily closing the door on the two big mood dampers outside. He took a seat closer to David, rather than across. Putting yourself front to front with someone put up an instant air of offense and defense. Opposing sides. Hopefully David didn’t mind, but either way, Robert reached under his shirt and pulled free his IWB holster holding his Glock, and set it on the same side table next to the larger Ruger. “I’m only here to ask you a few questions about the incident two weeks ago, Dave. I’m hoping we can be out of each other’s hair as soon as possible and I’m sure you’re hoping the same.” Robert cleared his throat, placing the folder on the table and looked to David, “First things first, can you tell me everything about the scene? Omit nothing.”
Dave martialed his thoughts, his eyes on the far wall. When he finally spoke he did so slowly, picking the scene apart in his mind to be sure he’d relayed them as accurately as possible. He described the old bone, the heads on the stakes, the lack of bugs and the fallen leaves. The details grew more vague as he described the stone and its cadaverous occupant, the details having mercifully faded over the last couple of weeks.
“It just felt wrong,” he said as he reached the end of the story. “The whole thing, it was too quiet. The air seemed dead, you know? Had my skin crawling. But I felt like...Like I had to get a closer look at it all.”
Robert nodded along, lips pursed as he watched David’s face while he described the scene. “And the Slab, it was black?”
He reached into his folder and produced a stack of photos. One clearly from a crime scene in the Pacific Northwest, one from the Afghan mountains and another one taken from an aerial view somewhere in the FATA in Pakistan. “Like these?”
Dave took the photos, looking them over with a frown of concentration. While he didn’t get the same sense of impending doom that he had from the slab in the mountains, he still suppressed a shudder.
“Yup,” he said, handing them back. “Pretty much like that. Corpse was rotten, but hadn’t been eaten on. I don’t know how familiar you are with the woods, but that...It doesn’t happen. Something dies, it gets eaten, every time. I’ve got a dog the size of a Harley and I still have to lock down my garbage to keep the raccoons out of it. Body shouldn’t have been there more than a few hours before somethin’ came for a bite.”
Robert nodded along. “These Slabs are considered a grave threat, David. I’m glad you made us aware of this one. I understand you have a son?”
There was a slight tightening around Dave’s eyes, a clenching of his hands that he was quick to mask.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “What about him? He didn’t see shit, and I didn’t tell him the whole story. He’s got nothin’ to do with this.”
“And I’m glad he doesn’t. David, I’m not making a threat. I knew he was with you when you found the Slab.” Robert held a hand up to quell any aggression from mentioning his son, “But there’s a lot of other fathers who can’t say the same. The real reason I’m here, David, is because I was given a choice.”
“Since I’ve already made my decision by coming here and talking to you tonight, I’m going to give you a choice.” Robert opened the Manila folder to show David a profile of his own life rendered into the margins of a Top Secret dossier, “A man like you is a valuable thing. You’re not beholden to big organizations that would rather retain you than loan you to a section of the government nobody knows exists.”
“I belong to a long line of men and women who keep things like that Slab and whoever the fuck put it there away from our sons, our daughters, our families. Our fellow man.” Robert shook his head, “I’m not going to tell you that you owe the world a thing. I’m not asking you to keep the world safe. But you have a choice to make, David.”
“Either you forget about this and you keep spending your weekends with your son and always looking over your shoulder in these woods…” Robert slowly got up from his seat, going over to the door and whispering at one of the operators at the door. He returned with a briefcase, popping it open to reveal a very good amount of money, “And have enough money to put your son through college without debt after. You could do that. Or you could make sure your son lives in a world where you don’t have to worry about Black Slabs or whatever put them there coming for him before he even graduates High School.”
Robert leaned over, holding David’s gaze while he pulled a flip phone from his pocket. He placed it on the table in front of David and stood. “I’ll leave you the money. If anything, it’s the least I can do for you making me aware of that thing in the mountains so I can go out and put it down.” Robert gestured to the phone. “I’ll leave you the phone too. Just in case you ever have a feeling like you might want to go hunting too. I’ll see you around, David.”
Robert pushed up his glasses, replaced his holster and turned for the door.
“Stop,” Dave said as Robert walked away. He stared at the money for a moment. “I ain’t sayin’ I’ll do this...But...You said you’re gonna go out and take care of this Slab. Whoever put it there.”
He looked up at Robert. His eyes were hard, chips of ice set in his rugged face. “These are my mountains. Nobody’s gonna do that kinda shit around here, not as long as I can stop ‘em. I figure you already know everything about me, so you’ll know I’ve got half a ton of Tannerite down in my basement, and the riggings for a blasting cap or two. Setup like that, I could level a house. Or two. You willin’ to let me in on this? You let me help handle the shit here, and I’ll come with you wherever you need me next. But we clean up my backyard first.”
Robert turned to David, and looked him over. He loved when things were easy and went his way. Robert rolled his jaw and nodded, turning back for the door with a suppressed grin like he’d just secured a deal for damn good racehorse, “Hurry up and get dressed.”