When I was good and ready I left my chalet, locked the door behind me and made my way over to the house to face the music and let the other two know my plans. Snowflakes fluttered gently from the leaden sky, falling slowly in the still air. Big fat flakes which settled immediately to produce a beautiful but thin carpet as I trudged across the short space between the chalet and the house. Despite the snow the temperature if anything appeared to have risen slightly, the weather hadn’t really worsened as much as we’d feared it might earlier. I was distracted, wondering what kind of reception I was going to receive. I certainly didn’t want another fight with Peter and I didn’t expect that Peter would fancy another wallop from me either.
Be assertive, I thought to myself. Just walk in, tell them I’m off and when to expect me back. Stick to just a few facts. Tell them I hoped they could sort themselves out before I returned and then get the hell out of there and leave them to it. It was too early for any attempt at an apology and I suspected that it would likely just trigger another scene if I offered one. There would be time for that once I returned but for now I just wanted to be on my way as quickly as possible.
Deep in thought, it wasn’t until I stepped up to the door that I realised something wasn’t right. The door was partially ajar which in itself was unusual in this cooler weather and a light smattering of snowflakes was finding its way through the gap onto the threshold. There was no sound from within either. No arguing, no talking, no sign of life at all as I would have expected. I pushed the door completely open gently and stood motionless as the grizzly sight in the entrance hall was revealed to me. My jaw dropped.
“Peter!” I yelled, and dashed through the door and over to where he sat propped against the wall. Squatting down beside him I put a hand to his neck in the forlorn hope that I might find a pulse but it was obvious that Peter was way beyond help. The blood had ceased to flow and had begun to congeal. I could see globules of grey matter within the gory mess in his hair along with splinters from his shattered skull. I stood again, unable to comprehend fully what had happened and then my eyes fell on the bloodied torque wrench lying on the floor at my feet. Without thinking I bent and picked it up, studying it confusedly. It felt sticky to touch and seeing the blood on my hands I wiped them on my sleeves while I tried to get my head around the sickening turn of events. My first thought was that Kathleen must have done it. Perhaps the inevitable argument that had ensued had raged out of control and she’d stoved Peter’s head in with the wrench. She was more than capable of it and I knew what a volatile temper she had. Both Peter and I had felt the sharp edge of her tongue on more than one occasion. So where the hell was she?
I walked quietly down the corridor to the bedroom where I’d last seen her and again found that the door had been left slightly ajar. The eerie silence within the house, broken only by the creak of old floorboards as I moved about was unnatural and unnerving. The blind was still pulled down over the bedroom window, just a thin glimmer of the weak afternoon light squeezing past its perimeter to take the edge off the darkness within. Pushing open the door fully a little more light poured into the room, casting my shadow before me so that I could clearly see Kathleen’s clothes strewn on the floor just as they had been when I had left earlier. I could also vaguely make out what appeared to be her motionless form on the bed beneath the sheets.
“Kathleen?” I called. My voice didn’t sound like my own, it was cracked and weak.
“Kathleen!” I called again, making more effort.
Still she didn’t stir. I stepped around the bed and approached the side nearest the window where she lay. From that side, faintly illuminated by the sliver of light passing the blind I could make out her head protruding from the sheets and drooping over the edge of the mattress with the once glossy long dark hair obscuring her face, hanging down to the floorboards. The hair was now saturated. With the unmistakable metallic smell of sticky, drying blood permeating the air I reached down and gently lifted her head which revealed an ugly wound to her temple. Her eyes looked straight through me and off into infinity. Like Peter lying just a few yards away out in the hall she was also as dead as can be.
Rather than letting her head fall back to its ghastly position hanging over the side of the bed, I lifted it with the palm of my left hand on her cheek and positioned it gently on the pillow. After taking a moment to gather my wits I turned away and left the room cautiously. Whoever had done this might still be around, hiding, waiting to jump me. I realised that I was still carrying the bloodied torque wrench so I gripped it tightly with both hands as I left the bedroom, raising it over my shoulder like you would a baseball bat. I crept stealthily around the building, checking carefully behind doors and underneath furniture. I wasn’t about to take any prisoners. At the slightest sign of movement I intended to give whoever I discovered the same treatment that they had dealt to my friends. However it soon became obvious that there was nobody else in the house. Slightly relieved I relaxed a little and considered my next move. Obviously I needed to get to the phone down by the diner and call the police.
I could see that it had stopped snowing completely and the sky was beginning to clear as I stepped back through the front door into a slightly brighter daylight, quite dazzling compared to the gloom within the house. I scanned the immediate vicinity to make sure nobody was waiting to surprise me out there and then made my way hastily around to the front of the buildings towards the diner, heading for the pay phone.
“There he is!” came a shout from the far end of the forecourt, closely followed by a thunderous gun shot which shattered the silence and caused my heart to leap. The impact of the bullet dislodged a massive chunk of stucco rendering which flew away from the wall really close to my head. I turned quickly to face the direction from which the shot had been fired, automatically raising my hands in a gesture of surrender, still unwittingly holding the torque wrench. The sound of the first shot was still reverberating and echoing back from the mountains through the still air when the second shot came, this one hitting the wall even closer to me and showering me with shrapnel.
“Drop your weapon!” came a shout.
“Hey! Hang on! Don’t shoot!” I screamed at the top of my voice towards the impressive cloud of gun smoke at the other end of the forecourt. The smoke dissipated a little until I could make out the enormous, rotund shape of the deputy who had in his fist what looked like a cannon aiming straight at me. He was flanked by another uniformed cop who was looking at him with mouth agape, seemingly as surprised as I was at the unprovoked gun fire. The deputy had one eye closed and the other staring down the barrel of his gun taking careful aim at my head, obviously preparing for another shot. I dived to the ground in the same instant that the cannon exploded for a third time and the bullet smashed into the wall right where I’d been standing.
“Jesus!” I yelled at the top of my voice. They were obviously not interested in taking prisoners. I rolled, got quickly to my feet and hurled the torque wrench in their direction with all my might and then sprinted back around the side of the building before the missile was half way to its target. Turning the corner in a blind panic I collided smack bang into another cop running at full tilt towards me. The impact sent him sprawling backwards, arms flailing and the weapon he had been carrying flew from his grip. As he went down his head smashed against the edge of the tree trunk where Peter’s axe still remained with its head driven deep into the surface. There was a sickening crack and the young patrolman’s eyes rolled upward as his body crumpled. Then he lay still. It was obvious to me that the guy had suffered a serious injury and my first instinct was to see what I could do for him. Before I could do anything though, another shot was fired and I heard shouts from just a few yards away. They were going to be upon me in seconds. The realisation jolted me back into full flight and I bolted for cover.
I kept low as I weaved and dashed down the side of my chalet, making for the tree line beyond. There was increased shouting from behind me as I reached the trees.
“He’s killed young Platt! Get after him! Bring the son of a bitch down!”
I felt a slight tug on my rucksack as a bullet passed through the corner of it and then a big chunk of the tree in front of me flew away as the shell hammered into the bark leaving a vicious scar. A split second later the shot rang out. This one sounded different to the others. It was a sound I’d heard before and it spurred me on to an even greater speed as I realised that somebody was now using a rifle.
“Winged him! Yeah!” It was Ned Clayton’s voice.
I stumbled clumsily in panic, went down, rolled again and regained my footing. Risking a glance behind I saw the distinctive figure of that mad old bastard levering another shell into the chamber of his ancient Winchester. I kept running flat out into the trees with twigs and leaves showering around me as a fusillade of rifle shots rang out from behind, punctuated sporadically by booming reports from the deputy’s cannon.
The instant that I became enveloped in shrubbery and entered the darker confines of the forest, the sounds of my pursuers dissipated in my wake. The gunfire ceased but I kept on running, blowing hard and moving fast, sprinting across the uneven forest floor which was covered in treacherous tangled roots, fallen logs and slippery fallen leaves which threatened to bring me down at every step. Before long I burst through the trees into a steeply sloping clearing of loose rocks and scrub. Without pause I ran across the open ground, forcing the pace, relentlessly climbing until I reached the cover of more trees beyond. There I felt it safe enough to pause for breath, unhitching my pack to inspect the damage and take stock. The top corner of my rucksack was shredded where a bullet had passed through. As far as I could see, the round should have hit me at the top of my shoulder but somehow with the shot being fired from below and to my left the trajectory had been such that I’d escaped unscathed. It must have missed me by a hair’s breadth but there was a strong smell of booze coming from within my pack. I opened it to find that my whisky bottle had been smashed and the contents had soaked into the see through map pocket. I removed the map quickly but it was already saturated and some of the ink had begun to run and smudge. There wasn’t time do do much about it so I emptied out the worst of the whisky spill along with the broken glass and then stuffed the map into a different pocket.
Looking back towards the highway I could see I was now high enough to have a view over the tree tops and could just make out the roofs of the buildings beside it. I took out my binoculars and focused them on the scene below as best I could, struggling to keep them steady because my chest was still heaving as I took in great gulps of cold mountain air, fighting to recover from my desperate flight. One of the uniformed patrolmen was crouched over his stricken comrade, furiously administering chest compressions while the fat guy looked on. The unconscious body shuddered in rhythm with each push but I doubted that they would be able to revive him. The instant he’d gone down I’d had a feeling that his neck had been broken.
As I watched, another police car arrived, the complement of cops now increasing to six uniformed and heavily armed men plus one down. Three of the new arrivals joined the fat deputy. They stood in a tight group, all gesticulating angrily to one another and at the fallen trooper who still hadn’t moved. The guy administering the first aid appeared to have given up, rising slowly to his feet and joining the others. The sound of their voices barely carried far enough for me to hear and above my frantic heavy breathing I was unable to make out anything that they were saying. One of them, whom I assumed was the sheriff, returned to the newly arrived vehicle and sat with the door open wide, left leg crooked up onto the sill and right arm flapping animatedly as he talked into a radio microphone.
Panning slowly across the scene spread below me with my bins, a face leapt into focus which caused me a momentary panic, so clear and sharp was the image. Standing alone and to one side of the police was Ned, motionless and calmly holding a pair of binoculars to his own eyes. He was looking straight up at me. I could even discern his eyeballs, magnified through the lenses. As I watched he lowered the binoculars but continued his unwavering stare in my direction. I swear he was grinning from beneath that grizzly old tobacco stained beard. I turned, picked up my gear and swiftly continued on my climb up into the trees. There was no doubt in my mind that I was never going to get a chance to put my side of the story or explain what had happened to the young patrolman. Whether I liked it or not I was now running for my life.
I had no intention of letting Ned or any of the others take any more pot shots at me so I went at a fearsome pace, as fast as I could go without risking breaking my own neck falling over a tree root or tripping on loose rocks. About two hours later I stopped for a rest, fairly confident that my pursuers would not have been able to match my speed. Not Ned at his age and certainly not that fat bastard who had made his mind up to shoot me on sight. I removed my pack, sat and gathered my thoughts, still unable to comprehend how I’d managed to find myself in such an incredible nightmare.
Sitting there with my mind racing, trying to make sense of the facts it suddenly occurred to me that I had come to rest at the exact same spot where I’d first made love to Kathleen just a few weeks ago. Beautiful, funny, sexy Kathleen. The realisation brought a surge of emotion which erupted into my chest. I felt my shoulders hunch and neck muscles tighten like steel cables but there were no tears. I’d never been able to cry, not since I was a very small lad. I’d learned very early on that I had to control any outward signs of my emotions because if I didn’t I was more than likely to receive one hell of a clout around the ear from my father who had no time for whining little children.
“I’ll give you something to cry about.” he’d shout. Then if I persisted that’s exactly what he did, often unleashing such a beating that I’d be almost knocked senseless.
Over time I’d learned to switch off completely. It wasn’t that the emotions disappeared, far from it but instead of crying like any other kid which would have allowed my distress to be released naturally, my throat would constrict and my muscles would tense, knotting up until I could barely move. I would have to fight to breathe properly, unable to speak and only able to draw a normal breath after I forced myself to calm down and relax.
That was exactly how I reacted now. Poor Kathleen, despite her temper and dubious loyalties had been a fascinating woman, one of a kind and I had forged strong feelings for her, even if the most powerful of them had been lust. Peter had probably felt the same. The overwhelming horror of the fact that they had both been murdered kept hammering away at me. It was all consuming to the point that I could think of nothing else. The awful visions of their smashed skulls branded onto my brain would probably never leave me.
Whoever had done it appeared to have disappeared without a trace and as I’d unwittingly stumbled into the picture I’d ended up as the prime suspect. Thinking about the initial crime from the cop’s point of view, my finger prints were all over what must have been the murder weapon, the torque wrench which I’d hurled at them in desperation back there on the forecourt. Bugger! I’d handed them ‘exhibit A’ on a plate for starters. My blood was all over Peter’s corpse as well as my discarded dirty clothes from our fight earlier. I touched my battered nose carefully as I considered what was probably ‘exhibit B’. At that point I noticed the state of my parka. Peter’s blood was all over it from when I’d found his body, and some of it was probably Kathleen’s too, ‘exhibit C’?
Of course, to top it all my semen was inside Kathleen. I didn’t know if they would be able to prove it was mine. I’d only read a little about forensic science, mostly to do with blood but I was guessing that one bodily fluid was much like another in that respect. Whatever, it just looked worse and worse for me the more I thought about it. I suspected that Ned had been a witness to at least one of my assignations with Kathleen out in the forest too. Probably more than one therefore an obvious scenario and motive could easily be put together. Then there was the young cop who I presumed had also died, this time undeniably at my hands even though it was a complete accident. There was no way they were going to listen to me. Without doubt I was in deep, deep shit.
The only two friends I had on the entire continent, the only people who actually knew me or anything about me were both dead. I was totally on my own and from what I could gather even if I was arrested the amount of evidence stacked up against me was irrevocable. The death penalty was still in operation in Washington State and I didn’t think any jury would have the slightest hesitation in finding me guilty, particularly as one of the deceased was a cop. Taking into account the treatment I had just experienced, a jury would be the least of my worries. I was certain that I wouldn’t make it to any courtroom in one piece. There was no doubt in my mind that at that very moment a man hunt was being organised and would very soon be under way and I was going to be the quarry to be taken dead or alive.
While I sat there contemplating my options I heard a distant thumping noise like the sound of an over loaded, out of balance spin dryer. The cacophony became louder as its source came closer. Within seconds it developed into the familiar distinctive thwack thwack sound of helicopter rotors beating the hell out of the air above. I moved under the canopy of the trees and settled near some bushes. I was still wearing my old army parka and combat trousers so was pretty well camouflaged. I pulled the voluminous snorkel hood of my parka over my head, remained still and fought the urge to look up. The only way they would spot me was if I were to point my bright pink mug in the sky and wave. I didn’t feel much like waving.
The machine passed right over my position but didn’t slow or deviate from its course. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the helicopter moved away again taking its intrusive, ugly noise with it. Peace and tranquillity returned to the forest but I gave it a further five minutes before I moved a muscle. By then I felt it was safe enough to take out my little camping gas burner to make a brew.
There are all sorts of methods to make fire out in the forest and I’d been taught a few on survival courses I’d attended back in the army. Striking a flint with the edge of my bayonet might produce a spark big enough to ignite a wad of dry kindling. A magnifying glass, or the lens from my binoculars could focus the rays of the sun and direct them onto kindling or paper. That would have worked if there had been any sun. Heat from friction caused by spinning a stick in a hole in another stick might have been a possibility but I preferred a more reliable and time tested method. From a small side pocket on my rucksack I removed one of my collection of disposable BIC lighters that I always carried with me and lit the burner. Job done.
There was plenty of fresh snow to fill my tin mug and it took very little time to boil, topping up with more snow as it melted. After straining it into my mess tin and then pouring it back, soon I was sipping a comforting piping hot tea which warmed my core and made me feel a lot better. I drank every last drop, wishing that I had brought more in the way of supplies with me but of course I hadn’t known when I left my chalet earlier that my life might depend on what I had packed. It was lucky that I hadn’t bothered to clear out what little was left in my rucksack before I’d prepared to leave. As it was, I had about enough tea in a little plastic wallet for about a dozen brew ups to go with the few biscuits and chocolate bars I’d thought to put in. I really could have done with a slug of Glenfiddich at that point but those bastards down on the highway had shot it.
Reasonably refreshed if not fully rejuvenated I repacked my kit and set off on my way into the forest, ever upwards. It was getting late and I wanted to be as far away as possible from the Kirby place before nightfall.
I slogged away for about another hour but the afternoon light became dull and murky. I knew that it would disappear entirely before long so I started thinking about a suitable place to camp for the night. The snow had held off thankfully and there was very little breeze but the night was likely to be a cold one. I was on a rocky bluff heading diagonally up and along a slope where ahead I could see some shrubs and small trees. Briefly standing motionless and listening carefully I could faintly hear the tinkling, musical notes of water tumbling over pebbles and rocks. A clear freshwater stream would be handy I thought to myself, so I made my way towards the sound. Moments later I stood beside the stream which trickled away into the valley below. Some of the larger rocks on the banks were covered with green and yellow lichen and there was a lot of dead wood and leaf litter scattered around. It was a damp and dismal place but tucked away out of sight it appeared to be as good a spot as any to rest up for the night. As I threaded my way carefully between the boulders I received a jolt when I discovered that someone else had also thought it an ideal place to camp.
Instinctively I ducked down low to survey the scene, pulse quickening and senses sharpened. A few yards ahead I could make out the shape of what appeared to be a rudimentary shelter, partly obscured by the rocks and almost invisible from the approach I had chosen until almost on top of it. Indeed I’d almost tripped over the structure. Frozen to the spot I held my breath, listening carefully for any sign of an occupant but the silence and stillness remained untainted. Just the gentle sound of the stream could be heard in the background although I feared that my heart was beating so loudly it would surely betray my position. I continued to study everything in the immediate vicinity for several minutes, sniffing the air like a prey animal approaching a waterhole. Nothing. I inched forward in total silence until I had a better view.
With relief, upon closer inspection I could see that the shelter had long since been abandoned. Fungi had grown on the lower parts of the stout wooden poles which formed the framework of the lean-to type shelter. The roof covering which had once been a thatch of grasses and foliage, was on the point of collapse and sagging precariously in the middle. It wasn’t too far gone though. I could see that with a little effort I would soon be able to patch it up and make it fit for purpose again. I noted that whoever had been here before obviously knew what they were doing. The open side of the shelter faced the cliff which towered above, overhanging slightly and giving a little protection from the elements. The structure was tucked in close enough to the cliff face so that it was beneath the overhang, out of the way of any potentially lethal falling rocks. There were scorch marks and soot stains, signs of a camp fire having been lit probably several months before in front of the shelter and close to the cliff wall. The heat from the fire would have been reflected off the rocks directly into the lean-to. I even discovered some left over firewood in a pile, crammed into a narrow fissure at the base of the cliff face for protection from any rain.
Gathering a few leafy boughs from the trees and bushes near the stream and with a little more work I soon had the shelter repaired. I mentally thanked the previous occupant for his efforts as I worked, wondering if it might possibly have been old Ned. It seemed very likely. I gathered some more firewood to add to the pile, drew out my bayonet again from its sheath and scraped the surface of the driest piece to produce a ball of fine kindling. Pretty soon, with the aid of one of my trusty Bics I had a small fire going and my tin mug on the boil. I intended to keep my gas burner just for use while travelling to save time and effort during the day, and anyway it didn’t put out a lot of heat which I was going to need for the night. By the time I finished my work it was a cosy looking camp with a decent fire, a bed of foliage and a rucksack pillow.
While the water heated I used the remainder of the fast diminishing light to scramble up on top of the highest boulder and using my binoculars scanned the surrounding terrain below. I couldn’t detect any movement or anything out of the ordinary down there. I didn’t really expect to spot anyone as I’d been making good speed all afternoon and didn’t think I’d left much of a trail behind me. Removing the binoculars from my eyes I turned to drop back down from the rock but it was then in my peripheral vision I sensed a flash of light, just a split second glint from among the trees in the middle distance. I had no idea what it was but something had definitely flashed I was certain. Once again in a bit of a panic I dropped onto my belly and focused the bins on the general area, studying it thoroughly but didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. I concentrated hard for a good ten minutes more but still nothing presented itself. Then as if a dimmer switch had been turned, the daylight dropped almost to darkness so that I couldn’t make out anything at all.
I was left to ponder. The cops couldn’t be on to me yet I was sure. They would want to get an idea of my position from the helicopter if possible before committing themselves. Failing that they would send out a search party, maybe even a dog team to track me. But it would take time to organise and I intended to be long gone before they found a trace to go after. Perhaps it was just another woodsman or hunter innocently making camp for the night just as I was. Whatever, in my heightened state of anxiety I convinced myself that there was definitely someone down there. My instincts told me to get going again, to run for my life but my common sense told me to stay. To exhaust myself further now would be suicidal. I had no idea how many more days and nights I would have to spend in the wilderness but this was more than likely the first of many. How far I would need to travel I didn’t know either so I was going to have to pace myself as well as the situation allowed. I had a good place here to spend the night with my back to the wall and would have a good field of vision once dawn broke in the morning.
Meanwhile I didn’t expect to get much in the way of sleep, not now that I suspected that I wasn’t alone out here. I opened my pack and found myself a couple of biscuits and a piece of chocolate. It was probably too late to make a difference but even so I didn’t want to risk keeping my fire going now that it was dark. So once the water had boiled I stamped the burning embers out then settled with a mug of tea to wash down my meagre meal. Tomorrow, once I’d put some distance between me and this camp I planned to forage for something more substantial to eat, I had a feeling I was going to need all of my strength in the coming days.