Shades of Gray

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Donnie managed to keep from throwing up until the woman calmly got up and vanished into the tent. Then the two boys ran as fast, back through the woods and didn’t stop until they reached the trailhead. They couldn’t have been happier to discover that their bikes were not where they had left them. The handlebars of their bikes were sticking out of the tailgate of a black Chevy Blazer and there was Donnie’s father, leaning on the fender, armed crossed, looking like an angry bear in his black DEC park ranger’s uniform. Before Don Herzog Sr. could let loose with the lecture he had prepared for his school-skipping son, both boys sprinted right to him. Donnie launched himself into his father’s arms.

“Dad! Oh God Dad,” wailed Donnie, out of breath and hysterical. “She….she killed him!” Donnie started crying and could seem to catch his breath.

“What are you talking about? Where is your fishing tackle,” Herzog shook his son trying to shock him into something resembling coherence. He looked to his son’s friend for some sort of explanation. “Marcus, what they hell is going on?”

“I talked Donnie into ditching school so we could go looking for some spring brookies. We went to that spot you showed us, the one about two miles up the trail over there. But someone was already there.” Marcus started to stammer and shake. Clearly, both boys were going into some sort of shock. Herzog quickly put both boys into the back seat of the Blazer and wrapped them in the emergency blankets from the kit he carried in the back. Rubbing his son’s arms, Don sought more information.

“Donnie. Donnie, I need you to tell me what happened.”

“There were some campers at the fishing hole when we got there. A man and a woman. They were doing stuff, so we hid so they couldn’t see us and,” Donnie broke off and started crying.

“You two stay here. Lock yourselves in the truck and don’t move until I get back,” Ordered Ranger Herzog. “You understand?”

Herzog made sure both boys were secured in the back seat, grabbed his emergency pack and keys and double-checked to see that the doors were securely locked. He turned toward the trailhead and sprinted through the woods. He paused when he got to the place where the boys had left their tackle and proceeded cautiously toward the clearing at the top of the trail. As he emerged from the trail, the first thing that struck the Forrest Ranger’s attention was how completely calm and normal the camp site looked. There was no sign of a struggle or disarray of any kind. It was conspicuously neat and orderly. Cautiously, he approached the tent pitched on the far side of the clearing and it was then that he saw a stream of blood seeping from the entrance to the shelter.

Herzog drew his weapon and carefully pulled the tent flap back. As was the case outside of the tent, the interior was exceptionally neat and orderly. A naked man’s body was lying on a blanket whose original color was quickly becoming indistinguishable. He knew from the amount of blood that was pooling around the edges of the blanket that the man was dead, but he knelt over the body to check anyway. The man’s throat had been cut clear through so that his spine was clearly visible through the wound. There was no evidence to suggest that there was anyone else present other than the victim. What appeared to be the man’s clothes were piled near the blood soaked blanket, but there was no indication of a female presence. Nothing but the impressive hard on the corpse was still sporting. Not wanting to contaminate the crime scene, Herzog exited the tent and radioed his dispatcher to notify the State Police of his location and what he had discovered as he continued his inspection of the campsite.

Even though the boys had only given him the most scant information, Herzog believed that the killer had cleaned up the scene. Everything seemed too neat. The scene had obviously been altered so that there was nothing left to overtly suggest that was anything out of ordinary. The ranger surveyed the site and found the place where the boys had hidden. He climbed the short distance and from there Herzog could make out the marks left as the body was dragged to the tent; this not only concealed the murder from immediate discovery should someone have stumbled upon the site, but it also erased any and all foot prints left by either the victim or the killer. Herzog carefully retraced his own steps, gathered the boys fishing gear and went back down the trail to wait for the State Troopers to arrive.

The first two State Police cars were pulling into the parking area as Herzog was exiting the trailhead. Don unlocked his blazer and threw the fishing gear in the back with the boys’ bikes. He checked to see that both boys were all right before turning their care over to two of responding officers. Given what the boys had witnessed, Don knew that it was important that qualified health care professionals see them. He explained to the officers that the boys were material witnesses to a homicide and that they required medical attention. He and two of the officers helped the boys out of his blazer and into one of the waiting trooper cars to be transported to the local hospital for evaluation; then Don led the remaining two officers to the crime scene.

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