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Authors: Merry Jones

In the Woods (8 page)

BOOK: In the Woods
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Hank felt her looking at him and turned to her. ‘You okay?' His face was blank. Feigning innocence.

She squinted, letting him know she was onto him.

‘What?' He tilted his head.

Daniels continued. ‘Yeah, when that rig blew, it was like hell bursting up through God's green earth. A geyser of gas and fracking wastewater blasted out of the ground, and it kept spewing sky high for sixteen hours straight. The stink was everywhere. You could taste it. It got in your skin. And the hunting lodge – phwoom. Gone. Place was, I don't know, fifty or a hundred years old. Lots of locals belonged to it – they formed a new organization, named it the Hunt Club to remember the lodge and what happened to it. But all that's left of the original place is the foundation, just bare bones of the lodge. Nothing's there but old septic tanks.'

For a moment even Angela was silent. But only for a moment.

‘So that's why the locals don't like the gas company,' she announced. She folded her hands. ‘But that's not exactly a feud.'

‘Oh, it is. The local folks in the Hunt Club are determined to get rid of the frackers, pipeline, gas company, government and every other outsider – including hunters and hikers like you. As a government employee, I watch my backside, but I've made peace with most of them. They're not bad people. Still, there's a number of them who want to take up arms and go guerrilla. They've got an arsenal and a trained militia. A compound where they can survive for months under siege if they have to.'

Harper stiffened. She looked into the trees, half-expecting to see armed men in camouflage.

‘Now, I'm not saying they plan to start an all-out war,' Daniels went on. ‘They're angry, not stupid. Instead, they mess with the gas company's equipment. They let the air out of their tires. Vandalize the pipeline walkers' campsites. Try to scare them. But so far, it's been mischief. Not murder.'

‘Until today,' Angela said. ‘Today was murder.'

‘We don't know that yet,' Daniels said. ‘Could have been anything. An accident.'

‘I feel it. I just know it. What have they done to my Phil?'

Daniels didn't answer.

‘You knew about this fracking stuff?' Harper whispered to Hank.

He shrugged. ‘Which part?'

She scowled.

‘What's wrong?'

Did he really not know? Did he think she wouldn't figure out that he'd pretended to want to hike and camp and be alone with her when really he'd devised this trip so that he could study the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing? What he'd presented as romantic time together, away from work and responsibility, was instead some preliminary geologic field study. And he wanted to know what was wrong? Damn. Harper stretched her aching leg. She thought of Chloe and ached even more. What the hell was she doing here?

Not that she belonged anywhere else.

Hank took her hand. ‘Come on, Harper. Don't be like that.'

Really? Had he read her mind? Her nostrils puffed. ‘Like what?'

‘Can we talk about what's bothering you later?' He leaned over to kiss her cheek.

‘Fine.' She sat rigid, even as his whiskers brushed her cheek, raising goose bumps.

Daniels stuffed his water bottle into his backpack. ‘So. How about we go back to the exact point where Phil was last seen and start again from there.' He stood. ‘We'll break into teams of two.'

Harper got to her feet, ignoring the complaints of her leg.

Hank put an arm around her waist.

‘I don't understand.' Angela stayed at the ranger's heels. ‘Where could he have gone? I left him right at the edge of the field.'

Phil wasn't in the field. They'd separated into pairs and fanned out, checking the clearing and the two trails heading to Angela's campsite. No Phil. When they reconvened, Angela frowned. ‘I don't understand where he could be,' she began again.

Harper chewed her lip, told herself to be tolerant. It wasn't Angela's fault that she was upset. Or that she had a voice like a rabid hamster.

Daniels radioed his other search teams. They'd had no luck either. His face was strained as he faced the group. ‘We're getting tired, and we have only a couple hours of daylight left. So let's stay split in two groups. Angela, you're with me. We'll head north.'

‘Good idea.' Angela nodded. ‘Except I've been thinking. Maybe we should go check out the bog.'

Everyone looked at her.

‘I remembered something. While I was over there, looking into those thistles, I remembered that last night, Phil and I were talking about the bog trail. He said he wanted to hike it. So maybe he got tired of hunting …'

‘And maybe he took it in his head to go check it out?' Daniels finished her sentence for her.

‘You want to split up first?' Hank asked.

‘No, let's all go,' Daniels said. ‘We'll divide up there and search the bog area. If there's no sign of Phil, you two can backtrack on the main trail, and I'll go on with Angela the opposite way.'

It took about twenty minutes to walk there, and the trail got narrower and muddier as they went. The ranger narrated their trek as if they were a tour group, telling them that they were surrounded by 430,000 acres of remote and wild state forest. That Black Moshannon State Park, where they were, was in the heart of that forest, and that it got its name from its black-watered bog. The water wasn't actually black, but was stained a dark tea color by sphagnum moss and plant tannins. The other part of the park's name, ‘Moshannon', came from the Indian words ‘Moss Hanne', which had nothing to do with moss, but meant Moose Stream.

Harper was grateful for the narration. As long as Ranger Daniels talked, Angela didn't. But she only half-listened, concentrating instead on her annoyance with Hank. She walked apart from him, not holding his hand or even making eye contact. After everything they'd been through, didn't she deserve a weekend of his undistracted time and undivided attention? Why did she have to share him with samples and tests and passion for his career? Hell, she didn't even have a career to have a passion for. She was dangling, disconnected. And there it was again, her sense of being lost and useless. Of having no purpose aside from being Chloe's mom.

Maybe it wasn't Hank she was angry at; it was herself, for losing her direction. She kicked a rock, heard it plop into a puddle. Felt alone.

‘Bastard!' Angela bellowed. She took off running up the path, her boots splashing mud. ‘I can't believe you're here, you damned bastard!'

‘Phil?' Daniels ran after her. ‘You found him?'

Harper tried not to slip in the muck as she followed. She didn't look at Hank, heard him sloshing behind her.

‘You sonofabitch!' Angela yelled. ‘Stan? Where are you? Get some pants on and come out here.' She kept hollering, taunting someone named Stan.

Harper came to a small, circular cove. She stayed back, quickly scanning the area, assessing it. Tarps covered the ground, separating the mud from a high orange tent and adjacent canopy. Underneath the shelter was a small propane stove. Two collapsible chairs. At least two gun cases. A portable cabinet that might hold more. Hank caught up with her, stood close.

A shaved head emerged from the tent. ‘Angela? What the hell?' The head disappeared again.

‘Come on, Stan. I got a ranger with me. Get your sorry ass out here.'

A moment later, the man came out of the tent, buttoning a flannel shirt. He frowned at Angela, then the rest of them. ‘What are you doing here, Angela?'

‘I should ask you that question, Dickwad.'

‘Any of you guys want to tell me?' The man looked at Harper, then Hank, then Daniels. ‘What's going on?'

‘I'll tell you what's going on.' Angela darted closer to him. ‘What's going on is that Stan's going to tell us what he did to Phil.'

The man's eyebrows went up, his head tilted, and he put his hands on his hips. He stood that way, looking at her. ‘I don't know what you're talking about, but you better leave, Angela.' His tone was flat. Ominous.

Harper and Hank exchanged glances, not sure what was happening. Clearly, there was bad history between this guy and Angela. But who was he? Why did Angela think he'd harmed Phil? They stood at the edge of the cove, ready to move quickly. The guy was solid muscle. But with Hank and the ranger there, they could easily take him down. Except that he probably wasn't alone.

‘Sir.' Ranger Daniels cleared his throat. ‘I'm a park ranger. We're out here looking for a lost hunter—'

‘Well, look what scum has crawled out of the bog.' A round face edged with tangled brown curls popped out of the tent, followed by a short woman in an overly large sweatshirt, wool socks, and possibly nothing else.

‘Suck it, Cindi. Everybody, meet my lying cheating lowlife shit of an ex-husband Stan, and his lying two-faced housebreaking slut cow whore.'

Cindi cracked her chewing gum and waddled across the tarp to stand beside Stan. ‘Pleased to meet you, Officer.' She stuck her hand out to Daniels for a shake.

‘I'm actually a park ranger.'

‘Well, pleased anyhow. I'm Cindi. Stan's wife.'

‘Oh, please. You are not—'

‘Oh yes, I am.' Cindi held up her ring finger. It sported a large rock and matching gold band. ‘Musta forgot to invite you to the ceremony.'

Stan wrapped an arm around her. ‘Pay no attention to her, doll—'

‘No, you better pay attention to me, doll. Start by explaining what you're doing up here.'

‘Excuse me …' Ranger Daniels tried, but everyone kept shouting at once.

‘Fuck you, Angela. Why shouldn't we be here?'

‘Because you shouldn't be anywhere I am, that's why. I have a restraining order, motherfucker. I'll have you arrested—'

‘Not any more. Not for a year. And anyway—'

‘Where's Phil? What have you done to him?'

‘—how would I even know you were here?'

‘Phil?' Cindi looked up at Stan. ‘Who's Phil?'

‘Everyone, please!' Daniels held his hands up for attention.

Angela's face was bright red. She shouted, ‘Phil's my husband, bitch.'

‘She got someone to marry her? Poor fuckin' Phil.'

‘Don't you even say his name with your filthy mouth—'

A spine-piercing, ear-shattering whistle blew, startling them all into silence. Harper removed her fingers from her mouth, whispered, ‘Sorry,' to Hank, who was rubbing his ears. Then she stood tall and issued an order. ‘Everybody shut your yaps and listen to the ranger.'

‘Okay.' Daniels eyed her warily, took a breath, and turned to Stan and Cindi. ‘I've been trying to tell you folks that we're out here looking for a missing hunter. Philip Russo. This woman's husband. He was last seen about a mile from here early this morning. You wouldn't happen to have seen him?'

Cindi shook her head, no. She kept chewing her gum, staring at Angela.

‘No, we haven't seen him. Why would we?' Stan crossed his arms, faced Angela. ‘But here's a thought: maybe old Phil isn't lost. Maybe he came to his senses and high-tailed it out of here to get his ass away from his batshit old lady.'

Harper expected Angela to make a move and stepped forward, ready to block her.

But Angela didn't attack. She walked slowly forward, her finger aimed at Stan's heart. ‘You prick. You just can't stand to see me happy—'

‘Honestly, Angela, I couldn't care less if you're happy.'

‘Bastard. You did something to Phil.'

‘I don't care what you are—'

‘Otherwise, why would you be up here now, the same weekend as us?'

‘—as long as you're not near me.'

‘Okay, you two, settle down.' Daniels raised his hands again, waved them up and down to no avail.

Harper stepped forward, stood beside him, preparing to whistle again, but Angela stopped. She didn't say anything for a moment, just stared at Stan.

When she spoke, her voice was sharp and thin. ‘I swear, Stan, on my mother's grave. If you did something to Phil, I'll see you fry in hell – you and your little dolly.'

‘Oh, go lay an egg, Angela. You're a whack job.'

Ranger Daniels finally asked Harper to escort Angela away from the campsite so he could speak to Stan and Cindi uninterrupted. Harper led her back to where Hank was standing, but kept a distance from her. Angela seemed altered. Her features had twisted, eyes narrowed, lips curled like a snake. Sweat beaded her forehead. Venom radiated from her pores. How was it that Stan and Angela had ever been married? She couldn't imagine that they'd ever loved each other. Respected and trusted each other. How had their relationship turned so ugly? And how deep did the ugliness go? Deep enough for murder?

Harper eyed Stan and Cindi, their weapon cases under the canopy. With Angela beside her, sputtering bitterness, she gazed out toward the bog. It would be easy enough to dump a body in that dark water. She watched the surface, imagined a body floating just underneath, half-expected it to pop up and reveal itself. When Hank came up behind her and put a hand on her back, she spun around reflexively, her arm back and ready to swing.

Daniels divided them up. Hank was to keep an eye on Angela, and Harper on Cindi while he had a word alone with Stan.

Harper took Cindi to the folding chairs under the canopy. ‘Aren't you cold?' Harper nodded at Cindi's bare legs.

‘Me? No. I'm always hot.' She curled into a chair. ‘Say. Would you like a beer? We have a ton of them—'

‘No. No, thanks. But you go ahead.' Actually, Harper wanted several. She was tired, worried about Philip Russo. And the exchange between Stan and Angela had been jarring. Was it possible that Stan had done something to his ex-wife's new husband?

‘No, I'll wait for Stan.' She looked at him, talking to Daniels. Then she leaned forward, whispering to Harper. ‘How do you know her?' She nodded toward Angela.

BOOK: In the Woods
8.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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