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TWO

Bandelier National Monument

New Mexico

9 Months Earlier

The sky was overcast as the silver Subaru turned off the road and onto a dirt path. Sheltered from the unseasonable cold, Rory McCarthy read the numbers on the windshield-mounted GPS and took a sip of water. Setting his blue Nalgene bottle down, he cleared his throat and looked up the path. The route appeared well traveled. The boundary with the vegetation was sharply demarcated and there were frequent deep and wide ruts with tread marks denoting a vehicle larger than his.

Along with the hum of the engine, he heard the gurgle of rocks through the floor of the car, and intermingled with this soft rumbling were metallic pings as pebbles collided with the undercarriage. On either side, there were trees, tall and dense, branches from the pines arching over the corridor. And in the sky, a lone bird circled overhead.

For fifteen minutes, he drove in silence. The cabin of the car was warm. Ordinarily this would have made him drowsy but today wasn’t a typical Tuesday. Coming across a ditch, he assessed it rapidly and maintained pressure on the accelerator. When the car reached the ditch, it dropped down noisily, the big black compass on the dashboard bobbing in its clear container of water.

A short time later, the ground got muddy and the wheels lost traction. Rory countersteered. Traction returned. He leaned forward in his seat. Took in his surroundings once again. To the left and right, there was still nothing to see but trees, rocks, and bushes. Exhaling audibly, he leaned against the steering wheel. Underneath him, it dried a bit.

And then, just when things were beginning to become monotonous, there was a beep from the GPS and his heart jumped in his chest. Suddenly feeling as if he was controlling someone else’s foot on the brake, he rolled to a stop. And caught his breath. When his heart rate steadied, he turned his head. If the gadget was right, there should now be a path to his left.

Squinting, he discerned a slightly obscured foot path. Gingerly, Rory shifted into park and shut off the engine. The compass bobbed in its water. Now it was silent. He looked at his hands for a moment. Looked up and around him as the forest breathed, a few branches swaying in a stray breeze. Shifted his eyes to his rearview mirrors, first the middle one, then the ones on the sides. The breeze ceased and the world became motionless. He turned his head and looked at his blind spots. Held his breath. Listened. Nothing.

Okay, he said to himself. He reached to his right, opening the glove compartment, and took out a pair of gloves. Putting those on, he opened the door and stepped out. The dirt was sticky. Letting his hiking shoes sink into the goo, he looked into the woods, leaning on the roof of the car. As he did, the sun came out and the breeze picked up again. A few more branches swayed. He clenched his jaw.

He went around the back of the car, opening up the trunk and leaning forward to get something. Straightening up, he withdrew a jumbo sized coffee can and examined it. Just an ordinary-looking coffee can. Like any other. Except for the top which was a metal screen made of very fine wire that glistened in the sunlight. He stuffed the can into a backpack.

Zipping up his softshell, he closed the trunk and walked away from the car. Quickly, the trees converged around him. A branch dangled in front of his face and he brushed it aside. He looked back at the obscured Subaru. Turned back towards the path. Hands in his pockets, he continued for ten minutes, pausing here and there to confirm his bearing.

A rustling came from the trees. He snapped to attention. Epinephrine blossomed in his blood stream. His brain rapidly gave him an assessment. Squirrel. Looking into the green tangle from which the noise had come, he waited for it to show itself. At last it did, hopping into view just long enough for him to make out its elongated ears. Abert’s squirrel. He let the surge of adrenaline subside. Never, for a moment, had he considered reaching into his jacket and taking out his SIG Sauer. Still though, he had to be cautious. There could be hikers.

He reached to his collar and drew on his sunglasses. The lenses were a special kind of plastic similar to the kind in film, which absorbed higher frequency light more strongly than near infrared. Near infrared was a wavelength that human clothing reflected more poorly than vegetation and the end result was that any objects that were camouflaged, such as a human being, were rendered more visible. Gazing quickly around himself, he started walking again.

After a while, he observed that the trees were starting to thin. This did not surprise him. Rather it put him more at ease. If Google Maps was worth its salt, he was almost there. The path angled slightly to the right, but he no longer followed it, abiding by his original trajectory, making a cursory check behind him. The trees grew less and less dense. Before long, he was in a small clearing. The GPS beeped again. Second way point. Rory looked down. His left foot was a few feet from an outcrop. Right on target.

Stretching, as if he was doing the most mundane task in the world, he glanced to the side one more time. Then, he knelt down, avoiding making contact between the moist ground and his knees, hovering a few inches above the dirt and moss. Waiting for a vague discomfort to dissipate, he took off his backpack, took out the can, walked over to a tree next to the outcrop and lifted the top, holding it away from him. He tilted it down slightly.

A mass of black insects fell onto the soil and scampered about, like animated bits of black rice. He looked behind him. Looked back at the pile. God it was gross. He looked at the coffee can. Most of the bugs were still inside. He felt a brief wave of nausea. Grunting, he stood up and walked away from the path, tipping the can over every few yards, and then proceeding. Pausing to look in the woods. Walking on.

This went on for an hour and a half, until at last the can was empty. By then, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds again. It had warmed from the morning’s cold and he had unzipped his jacket. He looked in the can. There were a few bugs left, sticking to the metal. He banged on the underside, dislodging them. They landed in the detritus and disappeared from sight.

For a few moments he stood there, staring at the spot where they had vanished. Looking up, he considered what he had just done. And what was to come.

Zipping open his backpack, he put the can back inside. He was glad this task was over. Looking around himself one more time, for paranoia’s sake, he felt his scalp itch suddenly. Taking his time, he began the slow walk back to the car. Peered up at the tree tops, the eerie silence providing a deafening soundtrack. He wasn’t looking forward to doing this again.

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