Devin checks her phone. Joe’s text says, ‘We’re on our way!’ which is exactly what the text he sent five minutes ago had said, and the one ten minutes before that. It’s not that she isn’t looking forward to a weekend away, but man, freezing her hiney off in the parking lot was not the way she wanted it start. She’s about to express her feelings on the situation with a reply consisting mainly of the poop emoji when an honest to god, old school VW minivan pulls up.
The backdoor slides open and Steve’s head pokes out. “So… whaddya think?”
Devin looks at him, caught somewhere between impressed and appalled. Apressed? Impalled? There really should be a word for the emotion you feel when your friends rock up in the freaking Mystery Machine! “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Nope.” Steve grins, petting the lurid blue paintjob. “I saw it on the lot and I couldn’t resist. Sorry we’re late, by the way, but come on! This is so much better than a stupid Jeep, don’t you think?”
He sticks out his hand and Devin automatically passes him her luggage. “I think…” She trails off, letting the majesty of the vehicle in front of her really set in. “I think I call shotgun.”
For a second Steve looks totally bewildered and then he frowns. “No! Hey, wait! Come on, no fair! I was here first.”
Joe leans over and opens the front passenger side door for her. As Devin climbs in he looks back at Steve and shrugs. “Sorry, bud. Them’s the rules.”
Steve collapses back with a grumble. “Ha!” he crows, brightening up again almost instantly. Propping himself against the window, he stretches his legs across the bench seat. “Jokes on both of you suckers because this was my master plan all along. No leg cramps for me!”
“I’m five foot nothing,” Devin shoots back with a smug smile. “I’ve got my legs stretched all the way out right now.” She waves her feet around in the footwell to prove her point, not that anyone can see, but she can do it, dammit, so she does.
“Everyone buckled in?” Joe interrupts, and they’re off.
They’re out of the worst of the traffic and the scenery is turning decidedly suburban when the suspense finally gets too much.
“Remind me where we’re going again?”
Joe snorts. “Nice try. I’m not falling for that.”
“It’s a surprise, Devin. Are you familiar with the concept?”
“Are you familiar with the fact that studies have shown people actually enjoy movies more when they already know how they end? Ergo, Steve, the only thing that could make this whirlwind weekend away more awesome is if you told me where we’re going!”
“Ergo is a word I know how to use.” Devin thinks for a second. “I did use it correctly, didn’t I?”
“Oh yeah,” Joe assures her, “I’m pretty sure you did… But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna tell you where we’re going.”
Devin practically growls in frustration. “Oh my god, you guys, fine. Have it your way. Could you at least tell me why we’re on a sudden impromptu road trip?”
Neither of them answer.
“What?” Devin looks at them warily. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing!” Steve insists. “Look, it’s just… my wife’s out of town visiting family, the boof’s away on business…”
“…Joe’s cats kicked him out the house, so why not go an adventure? I know all this. That’s how you sold me on it. But come on, this isn’t the first time we’ve all been left home alone. Usually we just go drink! So, what gives?”
“Well…” Joe awkwardly clears his throat. “The thing of it is is that you’re going to be a married woman soon, and once you tie that knot it won’t always be appropriate to go galivanting with your male co-hosts…”
“I think what Joe is trying to say is that you’ve got dress fittings and bridal showers and rehearsal dinners coming up and trust me, Devin, I’ve been through this whole wedding thing and don’t get me wrong, it’s fun, it’s amazing, but it’s so tiring.”
“And then you’ll be surfing in the Bahamas on your honeymoon-”
“Skiing in Canada, actually.”
“Whatever you’re going to be doing, you’ll be doing it all while sickeningly in love and blissfully happy and there’s no way you’ll have time for me and Steve.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is,” Steve sing-songs back at her. “But that’s okay! Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“We just figured before all that-” Joe fakes a shudder. “-happily ever after becomes your new normal we’d get in some quality Team Sideways time.”
“So, what we’re saying is: Happy Bachelorette Party! Surprise! Now, sit back and enjoy the drive.”
“Aw, you guys.” Devin is genuinely touched. “You like me. You really, really like me?”
“Yeah, we do. But don’t tell anyone, we don’t wanna ruin our street cred. Isn’t that right, Joe?
“For sure. Oh, and by the way, Devin, I forgot to say earlier… And it’s really important so I can’t believe I forgot… Jinkies.”
She snorts. “Okay, moment officially ruined. Thank you, Joe.”
“Last pit stop before we get there, so stock up on the Scooby Snacks,” Joe announces, pulling in at a gas station that looks so run down, Devin’s not entirely sure how it’s still in business.
He pumps the gas while she and Steve head inside. Steve makes a beeline for the restroom but given the state of things – rust being the predominant decorating choice – Devin decides she’d rather hold it until they get wherever the heck they’re going. She walks around picking up enough bags of chips and jerky to see them through any upcoming apocalyptic events, when the front page of the local paper grabs her attention.
Second Woman Missing in Six Weeks
“Creepy stuff,” the clerk says, catching her eye as he rings it up.
“Yeah.” Another chill runs down her spine. She tries to shrug it off. “You know them?”
“Nah, they were out of towners. They always are.”
“Who is always what?” Steve asks, appearing suddenly behind Devin and scaring the ever loving bejeesus out of her.
She must jump at least half a foot in the air, because the dude behind the counter cracks up. “Relax,” he says, pouring them out some coffee while Steve apologises. “Here, on the house.”
“Thanks.” Devin smiles self-deprecatingly. “Not that I need my heartrate going any faster.”
The door chime jingles as Joe enters. “Ooh, coffee, yum.”
Wordlessly, Devin hands him her cup.
They pay for their gas and provisions, and it’s not until they’re already back on the road that Devin realises she never asked the clerk to clarify what he meant. She flicks through the paper again, and there, below the fold, is a tiny headshot.
“Hey,” Steve says, leaning over the front seat and reading the paper over her shoulder, “isn’t that the guy from the gas station?”
Devin swallows dryly. “Yeah.”
Intrigued, Joe glances over at them. “Well? Don’t leave me hanging, what does it say?”
“Local gas station attendant, Mike Paulson, was one of the last people to see either of the women alive before they headed into the woods. When asked what he thought of the disappearances he said, ‘It’s tragic but I’m not surprised. Tis the season, after all. It happens every year.’
The Sheriff’s Office denied the number of disappearances in the area was unusual. ‘Camping is dangerous, especially when people come in from out of town and aren’t familiar with the territory,’ Deputy Smith explained. ‘People get dehydrated, they get turned around, sometimes they slip and fall and hurt themselves. It happens all over the United States. Let’s not start making this into something it’s not when the woods are dangerous enough on their own.’”
They sit in silence for a moment before Devin clears her throat. “Did you guys book us a vacation in a murder wood?”
“Hey now,” Steve gasps, faux-affronted, “a ‘murder-wood’? That’s like the definition of making this into something it’s not and Deputy Whatshisname says that’s totally not allowed.”
“Exactly,” Joe throws in. “Besides, you can’t even be sure it’s murder. Chupie’s gotta eat, you know.”
Devin cracks a smile despite herself. “That’s fair.”
It’s late by the time they arrive. Really late. Like, Devin was maybe, possibly, kinda already asleep-late. She jolts awake when Joe shuts off the engine. He leans over and peers at her before letting out an explosive laugh. “Haha, you have drool on your face!”
“Do not!” She bats at him, surreptitiously scrubbing at her cheek with the back of her hand while Joe and Steve get out of The Mystery Machine.
It’s only then that Devin really takes in what’s in front of her. It’s a spooky mansion. An in the flesh, actualfax mansion with towers and belfries and all. It’s tucked away in the woods, surrounded by trees so tall and imposing there’s no way she would have seen it from the road, even if she hadn’t been asleep when they drove up.
She follows the boys out of the minivan and grabs at Joe’s arm. “Dude! Is this place haunted?”
He waggles his eyebrows at her cryptically. “Not quite.”
“Not quite? Joe? Not quite? What does that mean?”
But Joe’s already ten steps ahead of her, joining Steve at the front door. It opens with a satisfyingly ominous creak and an elderly woman, clad head to toe in black, gestures them inside. Above the mansion, dark clouds are drawing close and it looks like a thematically appropriate storm will soon be setting in.
“Jinkies, indeed.” Devin shoulders her bags and hoofs it to catch up.
The inside of the mansion is as creepy-chic as the outside, decked out in gently worn antiques. So, for that matter, is the landlady, whose outfit wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Victorian-era memento mori. She introduces herself as Mrs. Peck in a perfectly crisp British accent. Devin has so many questions: Where did she come from? Why is she here? Is her voluminous dress an heirloom or a reproduction? But Steve is making small talk about their journey and there doesn’t seem to be a polite way to work an interrogation in.
Mrs. Peck leaves them alone in a communal lounge – a room she refers to as the guest parlour - to fetch their room keys. Steaming hot mugs of cocoa and a plate of oatmeal cookies have been laid out to welcome them. Devin stares at the guys, wide-eyed.
“This place is the bomb!”
“I know, right!?” Steve squeals. “It is so much better than I could have imagined. And I was imagining something seriously awesome.”
“You have no idea how hard it was to keep this place a secret from you,” Joe confesses. “As soon as I found it I kept almost sending you the link because it was too cool not to share. In fact,” he pulls out his phone, “you’ve gotta read some of these Yelp reviews…” He frowns lightly. “Huh, no signal.”
“Well, duh,” Devin says knowingly, between bites of her cookie. “You can’t get Wi-Fi in a time slip!”
Joe laughs. “You’re right. That was dumb of me.”
“So dumb,” Steve agrees. “Also, we’re in the last bastion of civilization before the woods take over, so.”
“Murder-wood not confirmed,” Devin says firmly, with far more conviction than she feels. That prickly feeling at the nape of her neck is back.
“Here we are,” Mrs. Peck says briskly, preceded into the room by the susurration of her skirts. She distributes the keys and nods at them to follow her. “I’m afraid you’ll have to carry your own bags. But it’s not too far, just one flight of stairs.”
Along the way, Joe asks, “So, are we the only guests?”
“In a manner of speaking. There is one other gentleman, but he is more of a year-round resident than a guest. He keeps himself to himself.”
“Yes, I understand he works for the Forestry Department. He is forever going out for weeks on end hiking and such. Perhaps you’ll meet him at breakfast.”
“I’d like that,” Devin says cheerfully.
“I bet he has some great stories about the woods.”
“Maybe he even knows something about those missing girls,” Joe murmurs but not so quietly Mrs. Peck doesn’t overhear.
Her back stiffens – which Devin wouldn’t have thought was possible, given how excellent her posture was already – and she says curtly, “I am certain that he does not and even if he did, I don’t believe the breakfast table would be an appropriate place for such a conversation.”
Joe raises his eyebrows, startled. “No, of course, I—”
Mrs. Peck stops abruptly.
“Here you are, dear,” she says cutting Joe off and decisively changing the subject. She leads Devin into a cosy room. “The en suite is through here. Be sure to lock the door when you’re not using it as it connects to the gentlemen’s quarters.”
“Oh,” Devin says, a little surprised. “Sure. Absolutely.”
Mrs. Peck smiles indulgently. “It’s old fashioned, I know. Sometimes I think guests would prefer a bit more modernity in the facilities, but the truth is I can’t bear to see this old place change.”
Steve shoots Devin a look that clearly says, ‘You can say that again,’ as Mrs. Peck leads him and Joe to the room next door.
Devin doesn’t like to think of herself as one of those people old fogies are always crabbing about but the lack of Wi-Fi is starting to drive her a little stir crazy. She’s already indulged in a luxurious soak in the claw-footed tub, used the fancy stationary in the writing desk to jot off a postcard to her parents that they can mail on the way home, and unpacked all her luggage. What the hell else did people do for fun back in the day?
She sits in an armchair by the window watching the rain and tries to think relaxing thoughts.
Instead, her imagination keeps circling back to those two women, missing in the woods, six weeks apart.
“Curse of the true crime podcaster,” she mutters to herself, and eventually stops trying to fight it.
Devin’s so caught up in trying to piece together what might have happened to those women, she halfway thinks she’s imagining the first scream.
Then, there’s another one.
“What the hell?” She jumps up and leans on the windowsill, squinting at the edge of the woods, trying to determine where the sounds are coming from. It’s a bloodcurdling, soul chilling, human-sounding screech, and it keeps coming, again and again. Just as Devin is contemplating going to pound on Mrs. Peck’s door for help, the screaming stops as abruptly as it started.
Through the rain, Devin watches a shadowy figure emerge from the woods.
She’s leaning so close to the window, her breath fogs up the glass. She wipes it clear and finds the man is staring up at her. He’s carrying an axe in his hands. He waves it at her.
Devin flings herself aside and flattens her body against the wall.
She counts slowly. She tries to calm her breathing. After a long moment, Devin musters up her courage and peeks through the window sidelong, staying out of view.
The man is walking quickly, now, along the path towards the mansion. He’s wearing some kind of uniform. Devin remembers what Mrs. Peck had said about a year-round guest, one who worked in the Forestry Service.
“Oh crap,” she spits.
He’s almost at the porch when there’s another scream.
The man looks behind himself to the woods, back to the mansion’s backdoor, and finally up at Devin’s now vacant window. For a second he hesitates and then the screaming kicks back up in earnest. He turns on his heel and runs back towards the trees. He never lets go of his axe.
There’s an almighty clap of thunder and a blinding flash of lightening. Suddenly the room is plunged into darkness. Devin shrieks.
“Devin?” There’s a quiet knock on the bathroom door.
She unlocks it and lets Steve into her room. He has the flashlight on his cell phone pointed up, making his face glow like a jack-o-lantern. “The power went out. You okay?”
“Yeah,” she lies, feeling deeply unsettled. “Did you hear that noise?”
“That rumbling?” he asks, jabbing his thumb behind him. “That’s just Joe snoring.”
“No, not that. It was, like, a scream?” she explains haltingly. “A lot of screams, actually. It sounded like it was coming from the woods.”
“No, I didn’t hear anything like that. But I can barely hear myself think over Chainsaw Joe. Maybe it was the wind? Lord knows, it’s blowing a gale out there.”
She shakes her head. “Definitely not. It sounded kind of… human?”
“Whoa.” Steve raises his eyebrows. “For real?”
“For really real.”
“We should tell someone?”
“Who? And how would we call them? There’s no cell service out here in the boonies.”
Steve shrugs. “What about that guy? That Forestry Service guy? We could ask him in the morning to call it in?”
“No, dude, I’m pretty sure he already knows.”
“He was there…” She points out the window but with the porch light out and the rainclouds obscuring the stars there’s nothing to see but blackness. Devin fills Steve in on what she’d seen.
“Huh,” he says when it all sinks in. “That’s…”
“Creepy as all hell?” she suggests.
“I was gonna say odd but yours works too. So, what are you thinking?”
Devin frowns. “I don’t know. Those missing women—” She’s cut off by a loud knock at the door.
She and Steve share a nervous look. “Watch yourself,” he whispers as she goes to answer it.
When she does, Mrs. Peck hands her an old-fashioned kerosene lamp.
“I hope I didn’t wake you, dear,” she says apologetically. “The weather can wreak such absolute havoc on the generator. I should have set these in your rooms before you checked in, but it slipped my mind…”
She trails off as Steve comes up behind Devin’s shoulder. Her kindly smile shrinks into a hard, displeased line.
“Evening, Mrs. Peck,” he says with cheerful obliviousness.
“Perhaps I could trust you with this,” she says primly, handing him a second lantern. “I knocked on your door, but I think your roommate is quite out for the count.”
Steve laughs. “Yeah, you could say that. He’s sleeping like a hibernating bear.”
“Yes, well, it is quite late…” she clears her throat pointedly and steps back, as if giving Steve space to exit Devin’s room.
He looks from Devin to Mrs. Peck. “I guess I should be going?”
“Yeah,” Devin agrees, awkwardly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Sure. Um, good night?”
Devin shuts the door and groans to herself. So much for a relaxing night: she not only may or may not be sharing a hotel with a crazed axe maniac, but the landlady thinks she’s a floozy.
“Great,” she mutters, placing the kerosene lamp on the bedside table. She picks up the newspaper and studies the missing women’s photos again. Did she really hear what she thought she heard? And how was she going to convince anyone to take her seriously? She could tell Steve wasn’t exactly buying it, and he legitimately believed Andy Kauffman faked his own death.
Her train of thought is interrupted by more knocking.
She throws the door open again, irritated. “Mrs. Peck—”
It isn’t Mrs. Peck.
“Hi.” The dude from the woods holds up a lamp and tries to hand it to her. “I’m Garret.”
Devin swings the door almost all the way shut. Her hands are suddenly sweaty, and she makes a profoundly undignified squeak.
“No thanks,” she blurts out through the remaining crack in the door. “Mrs. Peck just gave me one. In fact, I think she’s just down the hall. Right next door. Talking to my friends. Who are still awake.”
“I see,” he says slowly.
He holds up the lantern to illuminate the hallway and even from where she’s cowering, Devin can see it’s empty.
Garret turns back to her. “I saw you standing at your window earlier. Your light went out when the power cut. I wasn’t sure if you had a lantern, I didn’t want you tripping over things in the dark…”
“Well, I have one. So that’s fine. Thank you and good night.”
Devin closes the door firmly and locks it. She collapses back against it, breathing heavily. It’s a few long moments before she hears Garret walk away.
Fuck. Fuckity fuck. What the hell is going on out here?
A selection of morning papers is laid out in the breakfast room. Devin pages through them but there’s no follow up on the missing women. She’s desperate to rehash everything she knows with Joe and Steve, but Mrs. Peck joins them at the dining table. Devin is so consumed by the memory of the not-quite-animal screams she’d heard the night before that it takes a moment for the lull in conversation to register.
She looks up to find the guys have finished eating. Mrs. Peck has drained her tea cup, too, and they’re all waiting patiently as Devin nudges her uneaten bacon around her plate.
She puts her fork down hastily, cringing when it clatters in the rush.
“Sorry,” she mutters awkwardly.
“Are you done, dear?” Mrs. Peck sniffs reprovingly when Devin nods. “If I’d known you were a vegetarian I would have happily obliged.”
“What?” A warm flush rises on Devin’s cheeks. “Oh no, it’s not that. I swear, I’m as carnivorous as the next guy.”
“And the next guy’s me!” Joe pipes up. “I could eat a horse. With mashed potato on the side.”
Mrs. Peck ignores him adroitly. “If the food wasn’t prepared to your liking…”
Devin flounders. Between finding Steve in her room last night and Devin’s total lack of appetite this morning (on account of maybe overhearing a murder, or at least some light mutilation), Mrs. Peck was getting totally the wrong idea. It normally wouldn’t bother her what a stranger thinks of her, but Devin still has so many unanswered questions: about the history of the woodlands mansion; about Mrs. Peck’s amazing wardrobe; about creepy Garret and what the hell is up with him. She gets the impression that Mrs. Peck isn’t the type of lady to shoot the shit with people she’s not fond of. Heck, Mrs. Peck probably remembers first hand when loose lips could literally sink ships. Devin’s got to get back in her good graces if she wants some answers.
In desperation, she latches on to their obvious mutual love of historical fashion.
“It’s not the food,” Devin says, putting her hand over Mrs. Peck’s when she goes to take Devin’s plate. “It’s… You’re going to think I’m so silly. I’m getting married soon and I have the most perfect vintage dress to wear but I have to watch what I eat… you know what an ordeal alterations can be.”
Mrs. Peck’s demeanour changes on a dime.
“Oh my, but that’s wonderful,” she exclaims, clutching her hands giddily over her heart. She glances shrewdly from Devin to Steve and back again. “I should have known when I saw you two last night. But there was no need to sneak around! It’s no trouble to switch the rooms if you’d prefer... Despite what this old house might suggest, I’m not so old fashioned as to begrudge a young couple on the eve of their wedding—”
“Whoa, hey, no. Nope,” Steve cuts in.
Devin gags. “Gross.”
“Hey!” Steve objects, momentarily offended. “No, wait, you’re right, it’s so gross.”
Mrs. Peck stiffens again while Joe’s guffaws wash over them in waves. “I’m not sure I…”
“Steve and I are not getting married.”
“I’m already married,” Steve whines, waving his ring finger around.
“In that case,” Mrs. Peck says, her voice having reached what Devin can only describe as peak, Frost Giant levels of iciness, “I’m not sure—”
“We’re just friends! Devin’s like a younger sister to me. An annoying younger sister who I know for a fact is afraid of the dark even though she likes to pretend she isn’t.” He gives Mrs. Peck a long-suffering smile. “I promised Devin’s fiancé I’d watch out for her, so when the lights went out last night, I had to check in on her. I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t.”
“Well,” Mrs. Peck says slowly, somewhat mollified. “That was very kind of you, I’m sure.”
“It was kind,” Devin insists. “I’ve been so on edge with wedding planning and everything, I just about jumped out of my skin when the lights went dead.”
Mrs. Peck laughs indulgently. “You know, now that you mention it, Garret did say he’d offered you a lantern last night and you seemed awfully nervy. I’m afraid we put it down to you being city folk…”
“Garret’s around?” Devin asks as lightly as she can. She hopes her smile doesn’t look as forced as it feels.
“Oh no, I’d hazard to guess he’ll be asleep for hours yet.” Mrs. Peck starts gathering up the breakfast plates again to clear the table. “He was up into the wee hours of the morning chopping wood. He’s very kind to do these chores for me when with his work schedule he has to do them at such odd hours.”
Joe clears his throat, bemused. “He was chopping firewood in the rain?”
“There’s a woodshed,” Mrs. Peck assures him, gliding out of the room with the dishes.
Steve slumps back in his chair with an exaggerated sigh. “Yikes.”
“You can say that again,” Joe says.
“Seriously though, that was like being trapped in an episode of Downton Abbey. Talk about needing to mind your manners at the table!”
“You watched Downton? Joe. Wow. I gotta say you never struck me as the type…”
“Guys. Guys!” Devin hisses before the conversation can get any further off-track. “Listen to me, Garret was not chopping wood in the woodshed last night.”
“Oh yeah?” Joe asks. “I’m not surprised. The wood would – wood would? Ha! – anyway, the wood would be too wet to use.”
“Yeah, that and he was too busy walking back and forth into the forest while some unholy screams of terror followed in his wake.”
“Huh.” Joe looks at her curiously.
“I’m not crazy!” Devin turns to Steve. “Did you tell him what I heard?”
“I told him,” Steve confirms. “But what’s this about a lantern? You didn’t go out there to confront him or something stupid, did you?”
“No! I just told you, I’m not crazy! He knocked on my door after you left. He said he saw me in the window when the lights went out and wanted to check I wasn’t disoriented in the dark. More like he wanted to find out if I saw anything incriminating.”
The door swings open again, and Devin shuts her mouth so fast, she can hear her teeth clack.
Mrs. Peck puts a pair of small cooler bags on the table. “You do still plan to go hiking today, don’t you? Last night’s weather hasn’t put you off having a picnic lunch?”
“Absolutely not,” Steve says ingratiatingly. “With such beautiful surroundings I don’t think we could resist a hike even if it started snowing.”
Mrs. Peck smiles happily. “Well, there’s not much chance of that just yet but the forest is stunning to look at isn’t it? My late husband said to me before we moved here that I’d fall in love with it even quicker than I’d fallen in love with him - and I’d fallen in love with him at first sight!” She laughs wistfully. “All these years later and I’m still in love with both of them.”
She sits in the chair beside Devin, Mrs. Peck’s unexpected reminiscence making her look younger by years.
“I wanted to show you this, dear,” she says, handing Devin a framed photograph. “I’m afraid it’s me who must look silly now, getting so sentimental…”
A younger Mrs. Peck stands arm-in-arm with a tall, dignified man in possession of an impressive moustache. They don’t look at the camera, but at each other, sharing a private smile. Devin smiles too, touched that this prim and proper woman would share such an intimate moment with her.
“Your wedding day?” she asks, studying the lace trimmed dress in the photo.
“Yes. I wore my mother’s dress. It was after the war, you know. We all had to make do but I didn’t mind. I suppose I don’t need to explain that I’ve always appreciated the aesthetic of a bygone age.”
“Were you married long?”
Mrs. Peck looks away for a moment and when she looks back at Devin her smile isn’t quite so wide.
“Three wonderful years,” she says simply, holding the photograph in both hands when Devin passes it back to her. “Cherish these moments, dear,” she adds, as she stands, “make every one of them count.”
Devin sits on the back porch lacing up her hiking boots; Mrs. Peck has made it very clear: no boots in the house. She can’t shake the image of the young Pecks on their wedding day, nor Mrs. Peck’s – foreboding? – admonition that life can be short. Was she being warned off? Or was she just letting her imagination run away with her?
Joe sits down heavily beside her.
“Hey, yourself. What’s up? Ready to go?”
“Just waiting on Steve.” He scratches awkwardly at the back of his neck. “Listen, Devin…”
She squints up at him, surprised by the serious tone of his voice. “Yeah?”
“You don’t really think you’re fat or whatever?” he says in a hurried mumbling rush. “Because you’re not. You’re fine. I mean, you look great. Whatever’s eating at you, you shouldn’t not eat. If you need to talk—”
“Joe. Joe!” She shakes his arm, caught between an overwhelming rush of affection and an almost unstoppable stream of laughter. “I’m fine. I swear I’m fine.”
He blinks at her slowly. “You’re fine?”
“I’m fine,” she promises. “I just had to think of something to get out of finishing breakfast without offending Mrs. Peck.”
“But you’re fine?”
“Pinky swear. But thank you. I mean it.”
“Well, okay then. That’s good.” He chuckles wryly. “You had me worried there for a second!”
“I’m sorry. No need to worry.”
He casts a lopsided grin her way. “You say that but who goes to those kinds of lengths to avoid breakfast?”
“Oh. Uh. I don’t know. It’s stupid.”
“What’d I miss?” Steve asks, shutting the back door behind him as he joins them on the porch. “We ready to go?”
“Aye aye, captain.” Devin jumps to her feet. “Lead on.”
“Oh no,” Joe objects, falling into step beside them as they follow the path from the mansion into the woods. “You’re not getting out of it that easily. You love bacon! What’s the deal?”
“Yeah!” Steve agrees. “That was so weird. Wait…” He trails off, giving Devin a critical once over. “That stuff about your wedding dress? You’re not really worried about…?”
“No!” Devin exclaims, exasperated.
“You’re the one who brought it up!” he shoots back defensively.
“She’s fine,” Joe says calmly. “Except for this sudden, inexplicable bacon aversion.”
Devin stops in her tracks. “Okay look.”
The guys stop too and crowd around her.
“Ugh,” she grumbles. “You’re gonna laugh at me.”
“What else is new?”
She rolls her eyes at Joe but at the same time… fair point. “It’s those screams I heard last night, okay? I can’t get them out of my head. And the pictures in the newspaper of those missing women. Something is not right here.”
Joe clucks his tongue dismissively. “And so what? You think that sweet old woman in there was serving us long pig for breakfast?”
“No!” Devin stamps her feet impatiently. “I just lost my appetite. It has nothing to do with the bacon specifically.”
“Good. Because cannibal bacon is a ludicrous suggestion.”
“Yeah,” Devin retorts. “How stupid of me for coming up with the idea.”
“Bacon takes weeks to cure. There’s no way it would have been ready to serve this morning if Garret only started hacking up a missing woman last night.”
There’s a beat of silence. Then Joe catches her eye, and winks.
Devin can’t help it, she laughs. Bad taste and all, she laughs hard, and the annoyance that had been mounting into a headache melts away. “You’re the worst,” she says.
“You think there’s an axe-murderer in our midst and I’m the worst? Harsh.”
“Way harsh,” Steve agrees. He sounds distracted.
They start to walk again and after a few minutes their laughter dies down.
“You know…” Steve begins slowly. “The first woman did disappear six weeks ago.”
Devin looks at him sharply. He shrugs uncomfortably. “I’m just saying.”
Joe laughs again but it’s a hollow forced sound. An anxious feeling roils in Devin’s stomach.
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying.” Steve shifts the weight of his backpack on his shoulders. “I just think Devin’s right, is all. I think she’s right that something’s not right here.”
Joe makes an incredulous face. “I was, uh, joking about that long pig bacon...”
“It’s not about the bacon,” Steve says as Devin snaps, “Forget about the bacon.”
“Whoa.” Joe holds up his hands in surrender. “No more bacon talk, I got it.”
Devin rubs her temples. “Sorry. I just. You didn’t hear those screams okay?”
“O…kay…” Joe says slowly. He continues gently, “Look, Devin, I get it. I do. All kinds of freaky noises happen in the woods. Bobcats in heat…”
“It wasn’t a bobcat, Joe! Or a fox or a bear or a wolf or a… a… Chupacabra! I’ve been camping before. A lot. I know what an animal sounds like and this sounded like a person in pain.”
“But I mean, come on. You don’t really think this woodsy weirdo, Garret, is a murderer, do you?”
“I don’t know,” she says firmly. “All I know is I can’t say for sure he’s not.”
Joe opens and closes his mouth helplessly. They both look to Steve to break the impasse.
“I didn’t hear what Devin heard. But I believe her.”
Joe groans. “Don’t make it sound like I don’t believe her.”
“I believe you heard something.”
“Guys. Guys! It doesn’t matter who believes what because we can get to the bottom of this.”
“How?” Devin cries.
“You said you saw Garret coming out of the woods last night, where it sounded like the screams were coming from, right?”
Steve raises his eyebrows at her questioningly and gestures to the path they’re walking on. “So, let’s go see what’s out there, and settle this once and for all.”
The deeper they get into the actually-maybe-a-murder-wood-after-all, the narrower the trail becomes, and what began as a gentle incline is now a relatively steep downhill trek. Underfoot the leaf litter is slick from last night’s rain. Devin doesn’t really know where they’re going but she appreciates the guys’ willingness to follow her anyway.
She’s picking her way so carefully to avoid slipping and falling on her ass, that she doesn’t see anything amiss until Steve’s arm is suddenly in front of her, stopping her in her tracks and almost clotheslining her in the process.
At the bottom of the hill, Garret stands with his axe in his hands.
Joe nudges her. Devin glares at him and gets a pointed eyebrow raise in response. “Fine,” she mutters under her breath.
Louder, she says, “Hey there. Garret, right? We met last night?”
Garret says nothing. Now that she’s paying attention, Devin notes he’s looking ragged. He’s wearing the same clothes she’d seen him in the night before and they’re rumpled and sweat-stained, like maybe he took a powernap before getting back to whatever he was doing with that axe. She shudders and tries again.
“We’re staying at Mrs. Peck’s place. At the edge of the woods? I’m Devin.”
“Steve,” the boys chime in.
Garret nods slowly. “You can’t be here,” he calls up to them.
“What’s that now?” Joe asks.
“You can’t be here.” Garret swings his axe, lodging it in tree with a decisive thump. Devin jumps. “It isn’t safe.”
“Right. So, we’ll just…” Steve starts edging back.
But Joe cocks his head. “What’s not safe about it?”
Devin tugs nervously at his jacket. “Joe,” she hisses. “Come on.”
“Flash flood warning.”
“Uh-huh. So how come you’re down here then?”
“Clearing as much debris as I can before the rain starts up again.” Garret dusts off his hands and starts toward them.
“Mrs. Peck said you were with the Forestry Service?”
“Must be a dangerous job,” Joe offers, still ignoring Devin’s attempts to get him to move.
“It has its moments.”
By now, there’s only a few yards and closing between them. Garret reaches into his jacket, suddenly pulling something out. Steve quickly links his arm with Devin’s, not so subtly yanking her back and out of Garret’s reach.
Devin cringes. She shuts her eyes automatically, expecting to hear the sound of a gunshot over the breakneck beat of her heart. But there’s nothing.
She cracks one eye open.
Ahead of her, Joe and Garret hold a map, unfolded, between them.
She heaves a sigh of relief. Over Joe’s shoulder, Garret gives her a curious look. She digs her fingernails into the palm of her hand.
“Back up a-ways until the trail forks,” he says, pointing in the opposite direction to where they’re headed. “The path’ll take you to a scenic clearing. Nice place for a picnic. Did Mrs. Peck pack you something?”
“Uh, yes,” Steve says awkwardly.
“Good, you’ll enjoy it. She makes a killer sandwich.”
‘Phrasing!’ Devin mouths, as Garret turns back down the hill, waving them away.
Later, Devin is drifting off to sleep when another soul rending scream sends her flying out of bed. She blunders through the connecting bathroom, dragging on a pair of jeans before bursting into the guys’ shared bedroom.
She’s met with a beanie to the face.
“We’re way ahead of you,” Steve hisses. He’s not lying. Joe is decked out in camo, scoping out the woods through the window with a pair of binoculars.
She wrangles her hair into a ramshackle bun and tugs the black beanie down to her ears. “See anything?”
A second screech, not quite as loud as the one before, sends a shiver down Devin’s spine. Steve fumbles to check his phone. His hand is shaking. He’s spooked, too. “Still no signal.”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway.” Joe lets the binoculars fall around his neck. “If Garret is really a ranger, they’d loop him in on what’s going on as soon as we report it, being as he’s in the area already.”
“Right, right, right…” Steve nods.
Another scream. This one is sharper, more anguished. They look at each other in desperation.
Devin says, “We have to check it out.”
No one tries to talk her down.
Joe goes to the door. He holds his finger in front of his lips and eases it open, sticking his head out just enough to check the hallway.
“All clear,” he whispers, beckoning for them to follow.
They tiptoe down the stairs like teenagers sneaking out. The mansion has its own voice: ticking clocks and creaking beams, a gentle groan as it settles into the night. The deeper down the hallways they get, the more oppressive those small sounds become. Devin can no longer hear the screams outside. Somehow, that creeps her out even more.
They make it to the backdoor without getting caught, and they gear up as quickly and quietly as they can. Goosepimples erupt on Devin’s skin. Even with her winter coat on, she’s freezing wearing just a pair of jeans and her pyjama top.
“Everyone good?” Joe asks. His warm breath hangs like a cloud in the frigid air.
Steve has the flashlight on his phone ready to go. They follow the beam as it illuminates the same path they’d taken earlier.
They stop at the place they’d ran into Garret and regroup. The rain has started up again in earnest and the screams are coming less often, and sounding hoarser when they do. It’s hard to pinpoint where they’re coming from: at times it seems as if someone is standing behind Devin, shrieking in her ear, but with one turn in the path, the screeches become so faint, it’s hard to say it’s not just the wind.
“What now?” she asks, tugging the sleeves of her coat over her hands and wishing she’d grabbed a pair of gloves on the way out.
“Keep going,” Steve says.
When they pass it, Devin runs her fingers over the scarred bark of the tree where Garret had parked his axe and winces. Suddenly she can think of a couple more things she wishes they’d brought with them and gloves don’t even make the top ten.
The trail peters out when they reach the lowest point of the valley. The ground is thick with fallen leaves, broken branches and wet, slivery pieces of bark. Whatever Garret was doing down here, he wasn’t clearing the flood path of debris.
“Hey, you guys see this?”
Devin looks to where Joe is pointing at a broken tree.
“It’s like it’s been hit by lightning but there’s no burns or anything.”
“Weird,” Devin says.
Steve pulls Joe back when he tries to get closer to the half that’s hanging precariously and swaying in the wind. “Don’t. We can come back in the morning and check it out.”
“Yeah, okay.” Joe hesitates. “Where to?”
Devin hasn’t heard anything suspicious for a while now. She closes her eyes and concentrates. Try as she might, the only sound she catches is the plip-plop of heavy raindrops finding their way down the back of her neck. She grunts in frustration. “I don’t know where we’re going but let’s start by getting out of this rain.”
They retrace their steps, back up to where the woods are thicker. They huddle at the edge of the path, letting the overhanging branches shield them from the steadily worsening downpour.
Just off the path, a few yards in, another tree has been shattered. This one also lacks the tell-tale scorch marks that come with a lightning strike. Joe points even deeper into the woods and damn if there isn’t another one.
“What the…?” Steve looks flummoxed. “Joe, correct me if I’m wrong, but that shouldn’t happen, should it?”
Devin pokes his arm impatiently. “Not unless what?”
Joe shakes his head slowly. He looks as bewildered as the rest of them. “It’s like… have you ever renovated a house?”
“Ohhh.” Steve nods knowingly. “I gotchya. It’s like, when you hit a two-by-four with a, whaddya call it? A mallet?”
“A sledgehammer,” Devin supplies softly.
“That’s the one,” Joe continues. “See how it’s all splintering out from one point up there? Like a single impact point? A single—” He mimes swinging a baseball bat.
“What are you thinking? A meteorite hit them coming down?”
“No way,” Devin scoffs. “Those trees are too far apart. And wouldn’t that burn them anyway?”
“I would have thought so. And besides… it looks like each one was hit separately.”
Devin wipes what rain is getting through the canopy from her eyes and peers deeper into the woods. Joe’s right. Each broken tree seems to have its own personal ‘impact point’ from which all the damage radiates.
“This is weird.”
Devin’s about to call Steve out on the understatement of a lifetime when she spots another, subtler, piece of damage to the tree.
“Someone stuck an axe in there.”
The guys squint in the same direction. “Son of a bitch,” Steve breathes. “You’re right.”
Devin takes one step towards it to check it out and forces herself to stop. She’s had too much wilderness training to make such a rookie mistake. They can’t leave the path. Not without marking the trail they’re taking at least. But with what? They didn’t bring anything with them.
“Anyone have a granola bar we can crumble up?”
“What?” Steve gives her a confused look.
Joe grins. “Thinking of Hansel and Gretel-ing it?”
Steve cocks his head and frowns. “If I recall correctly, that didn’t work out so well for them…”
“Nah,” Devin disagrees, patting at her coat pockets, inventorying what she has. “They shoved the witch in the oven. Bam. Happily ever after.”
“Spoilers,” Joe mutters, turning his pockets out too when Devin shows them what she has.
It’s a sad collection: chapstick, loose change and more gum than three people probably need. Joe has a pocket knife, but it doesn’t look like it could slice paper, let alone score a mark in the thick bark.
“Use that.” Steve points to a roll of gauze cradled in Devin’s palm.
Her EMT instincts kick in and she pulls her hand back. “Nope. Can’t. What if someone gets hurt?”
“We won’t get hurt.”
She rolls her eyes. “Okay but you don’t think whoever has been screaming themselves hoarse might need medical assistance?”
“How are they going to get any if we don’t go find them?” He waves his phone at her, the flashlight sending eerie shadows dancing through the trees. “No signal, remember? We can’t call for help. We are the help!”
Devin grimaces but ultimately relents. She ties a strip of bandage on an eye-level branch. “Fine.”
“Here, I’ll—” Joe hangs his binoculars from the tree closest to the path to signal where they entered. It’s not ideal but it’ll have to do.
There are more shattered trees than any of them expected. And every third or fourth one has been slashed by Garret’s axe. When she touches the axe-marks, Devin’s fingers come away sticky with sap.
They wade through a deep carpet of the same bark slivers they’d encountered at the low-point of the valley. Devin kicks it up as she walks, trying to clear the way ahead; the last thing she needs is to be stuck in the heart of the murder-wood with a twisted ankle.
As she does she starts to realise the ground here is surprisingly level.
She stops and shoves more of the bark aside with her feet, digging through the layer of leaves below it too.
“Guys?” she calls until Steve turns back and points his cell phone where she’s standing. “I think we’re on a path.”
It’s narrower than the main one they’d branched off of, and someone – Garret? – has gone to pretty great lengths to cover it up. The whole thing is so frigging mysterious, Devin’s ashamed to admit that for a hot minute she forgets why they’re out there.
Then the screaming starts again.
Unlike before, it’s easy to tell where the sound is coming from: directly up ahead. They book it.
The path swings a right and then suddenly opens out. They stutter to a stop in a sheltered clearing. The scream is still echoing in Devin’s ears, but there’s no one there. A large rocky outcrop dominates the space.
“Pride Rock,” she breathes.
Joe shoots her a mystified look. “What’s that?”
“From the Lion King,” Steve pants, still catching his breath.
“Oh, really? I never saw that movie.”
“What?” Devin shakes her head in disbelief. “You know what? It doesn’t matter right now.”
“Um, actually,” Steve starts, “it might be more pertinent than you would expect… Stay calm,” he adds, in a whisper that sounds anything but.
He sweeps his phone out in front of them and from the alcove underneath the rock, the light is reflected back in an amber pair of eyes. With a territorial rumble, a mountain lion sticks its head out into the clearing and surveys them.
“Easy kitty,” Joe murmurs. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
The mountain lion whips its head around. It locks its eyes on Joe and snarls. Devin flinches. The lion opens its mouth, displaying a frankly terrifying array of teeth. Then, if that wasn’t enough to chill Devin’s heart to a stop, it screams.
It’s that same wailing, bloodcurdling, human sound Devin has been hearing all weekend.
She hardly has time to process it before the lion pounces.
“Get down!” someone yells.
Instinctively, Devin pulls Steve to his knees in the underbrush. They watch Joe get tackled from the side.
The mountain lion leaps over them, screaming loud enough to temporarily deafen. In a moment of out-of-body clarity, Devin wonders if it uses its scream to stun its prey. She wonders if they’ll be the next victims to make the headlines. Then the lion lands with a thud behind them, putting itself between them and the path out of there. Through the ringing in her ears, she can hear Joe groaning in pain.
Cutting through it all, Garret’s voice is firm. “Do. Not. Move.”
Steve squeezes Devin’s arm.
The lion stares at them, panting through bared teeth. Suddenly, it feints toward them, dodging at the last second. It swings its tail around – a tail that’s far too long to make sense with the size of its body and is fitted with a heavy, bulbous mass at the end – and slams it against the tree not two feet beside them. There’s a crack as loud as thunder, and a dusting of those bark slivers rains down on them. The tree gives a sickening groan. Devin clutches at Steve’s jacket, pinning him in place before he can freak out.
The bizarro mountain lion whirls its tail around its head again, the lump at the end looking for all the world like a sock full of pennies, and probably hitting twice as heard. It gives a final ear-splitting shriek and bounds from tree to tree, over Pride Rock, and disappears into the forest.
For a second, it’s all Devin can do to breath and thank her stars she isn’t currently kibble, and then her training kicks in. She jumps up, slivers of bark falling from her shoulders. She rushes to Joe’s side. Murderer or not, she shoves Garret out the way and takes stock of the situation.
“Joe? Buddy? You okay there?”
“Oh yeah,” he says weakly. “Never better. I don’t suppose you know what the hell that was?”
“No idea,” Devin says as brightly as she can. “But on the plus side it didn’t eat us!”
“Score,” Steve says flatly, crouching down beside her.
“On the other hand, you totally busted your wrist and we used the only bandage I had to mark out our way home. So.” She looks at Steve pointedly.
He holds up his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry! But in my defence, I can honestly say I did not expect this to happen.”
Garret snorts. “It’s a good thing you did mark the trail, or I might not have found you in time. Here,” he says gruffly, handing Devin an admirably well stocked first aid kit. “What the hell are you doing out here at night?”
“Well…” Steve clears his throat awkwardly.
Devin concentrates on wrapping Joe’s wrist and pretends she doesn’t hear the question.
Joe belts out a loopy, adrenaline fuelled laugh. “We heard the screams. Thought you might be murderin’ people out here…”
“What?!” Garret exclaims, as Devin squeals, “Joe!”
“Hey now, man,” Steve says quickly. “You can’t just go calling people murderers.” He turns to Garret, faux innocence plastered all over his face. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Don’t listen to him. He can’t take pain well. Like, at all. We should get him back the hotel.”
“Yup.” Devin nods her head fervently. “We should absolutely do that. Right now.”
Mrs. Peck is pacing up and down the back porch with her hair in rollers and an old-fashioned housecoat (of course) pulled tightly around her narrow frame.
“You found them!” she cries to Garett as they finally approach the mansion. Her face is a mask of palpable relief. She scuttles down the steps to meet them, engulfing Devin in a hug that’s so steeped in genuine concern, Devin can hardly breath for the force of it.
“Everyone’s fine,” Garret says gently. He takes Mrs. Peck by the shoulder and leads her back inside.
“Oh,” she says, distraught at the sight of Joe’s bandaged arm. “But they’re not. You’re hurt. Let me call for a doctor.”
“No!” Steve says quickly.
“No,” Devin repeats, feeling like a real jerk for making the old lady worry. “I patched Joe up. He’ll be good as new in the morning.”
Joe agrees. “It’s just a flesh wound, Mrs. P. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry?” she yelps indignantly. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?! What on earth were you thinking, going out into the forest in the middle of the night? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out there? People have… people have…”
Mrs. Peck sniffles, choking back tears. Garret folds her into his arms. Her body is wracked with silent sobs.
‘Crap,’ Steve mouths at Devin. That doesn’t begin to cover how awful she feels.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Peck,” she starts. “We didn’t mean—”
Over Mrs. Peck’s shoulder, Garret gives her a withering stare. She takes the hint and shuts her trap.
They sit in the guest parlour while Garret takes Mrs. Peck upstairs. Steve rummages in the kitchen while they wait, setting Joe up with a dishcloth full of ice for his wrist.
“Elevate it,” Devin instructs, propping Joe’s arm on a heap of decorative pillows.
Finally, Garret descends the stairs again, taking them two at a time. He tosses a bottle of aspirin Joe’s way.
“Nice!” Steve gasps as Joe catches it neatly with his good hand.
He grins, shaking a couple of pills from the bottle. “There’s life in this old dog, yet, eh?”
Devin stands, giving Joe a furtive thumbs up, and walks toward Garret. “How’s Mrs. Peck?”
“I’m sorry.” She bites her lip anxiously. “Is there anything we can do?”
“No. The less you do, the better, at this point. I put her to bed with a stiff drink.” Garret collapses into an over-stuffed armchair. “You know what? We could probably all do with one too. Would you mind?” He gestures to the drinks cabinet.
Devin pours them out some scotch. Joe probably shouldn’t, not with the pills he just downed, but fuck it, he’s survived worse. They clink their glasses and drain them.
Garret rubs his forehead wearily. “Don’t worry about Mrs. Peck. It’s not your fault…” He frowns. “Actually, it is your fault but you couldn’t have known…”
He trails off.
Devin refills his glass.
He swills the liquor around and heaves a bone shaking sigh. “Her husband died.”
“We know,” Devin murmurs. “She said. Just three years after they got married, right?”
Garret looks at her in surprise. “Marjorie doesn’t usually like to talk about that. She must have really taken a shine to you.”
“Oof.” Devin exhales a heavy breath, another wave of guilt rolling over her. Garret might not be a murderer but he totally knows how to twist the knife.
“What happened?” Joe asks.
“He went walking in the woods in the middle of the night and never came back.”
“Yeesh.” Steve visibly cringes.
“Yeah,” Garret says. “So, you can see why she was upset when she got up for a glass of water and found your bedroom door wide open, and nobody inside. She woke me up looking like she’d seen a ghost. I could barely get her calm enough to get a coherent word out of her.”
“Did that thing get him?”
“Mrs. Peck’s husband. Mr. Peck?” Joe clarifies. “Did that mutant mountain lion thing kill him?”
“What? No.” Garret moves his empty glass restlessly between his hands. “I told you, the flash flooding gets really bad around here. Every year it takes people by surprise. I keep telling the Parks Department they need to close the trails. I don’t know how many people have to go missing before they finally do something.”
“Missing?” Devin asks. “Like those women in the paper missing?”
“Yeah. Them and all the people who went missing before them and all the people that’ll keep going missing…”
Devin frowns. “You think all those people were killed by flash floods?”
“No,” Garret says, sitting up straighter in his chair, clearly riled by her incredulous tone. “Some of them survive until they die of their injuries. Some of them just have their camps washed out and die of exposure. Some of them get so turned around trying to get out of the path of the water, they don’t stand a chance of ever finding their way out of the woods again.”
“Pfft.” Devin takes another swig of her drink.
Garret looks to Steve and Joe. Joe shrugs wordlessly. Steve gives him an apologetic grimace. “I’m not saying no one dies in flash floods, I’m just saying aren’t there a lot of people going missing around here for flash flooding to be the only answer?”
“Flash floods are a known hazard… Oh for Pete’s sake,” Garret suddenly bursts out. “You’ve been talking to that crackpot at the gas station, haven’t you? Don’t listen to Paulson. He’s never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t swallow hook, line and sinker.” He rolls his eyes. “Is he the one that told you I’m a serial killer? I swear I’m gonna murder him dead one day.”
“Uh.” Steve looks alarmed.
Garret laughs. “Figure of speech.”
“Is there a reason we’re all ignoring the ‘roided out bobcat in the room?”
Everyone stares at Joe.
“In the woods,” he amends. “Whatever.”
“Mountain lions don’t attack people. Not in large numbers.”
“I dunno, I felt pretty attacked tonight.”
“You guys practically walked into its den. Any creature is going to defend its home. That’s not the same thing as suggesting mountain lions are hunting hikers in the woods.”
“What about the fact that thing we saw tonight was one hundred percent in no way a mountain lion?”
Garret looks at Devin with an unreadable expression. “Yes, it was.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Steve chimes in.
“Not a lot of mountain lions walking around with a ball and chain for a tail,” Joe adds.
“You’ve had a long night.” Garret stands and tries to usher them out the room. “It was dark. It was raining. You don’t know what you saw.”
Devin crosses her arms and refuses to move. “I know an animal with a medieval flail sticking out of its butt tried to brain us.”
“Okay, now you’re just being ridiculous.” Under his breath, Garret adds, “It was just a warning shot.”
“Ha!” Steve crows. “So you do know something about it.”
“No,” Garret snaps. “Not officially,” he admits.
Joe strains as forward as he can on the couch without dislodging his arm from the cushions. “We’re listening.”
Devin runs her fingers over the woodcut illustration. “A dingmaul?”
“And they don’t kill people?”
“They just scream like they’re dying awful, horrible, painful deaths?”
“It’s known as a ‘wail’ but, essentially, yes.”
Steve reaches over and flips the page, revealing an illustration that looks somewhere between a hippo and a really mangy bear. “Are all these creatures real?”
Garret cocks his head to the side and sighs contemplatively. “I don’t think so. A few, yes. But there’s a lot of superstitious garbage padding it out. The frontiersmen had big imaginations back in the day.”
“But they were right about the dingmaul?”
Joe turns the book back to the entry on the dingmaul and taps the picture. “Why isn’t this big news?”
“Because it can’t be.”
Steve shakes his head. “Shouldn’t there be scientists out here? And, I don’t know, environmentalists?”
“Sure, and you know who’ll come with them? Reporters and tourists and hunters and poachers. Don’t be naïve.”
“They’ll be protected.”
“How?” Garret demands. “By putting them in a zoo? In a lab to study them? For all we know the dingmauls in this wood represent the only extant population and who knows if they’d survive the journey to a zoo, let alone the conditions.”
“Okay but,” Devin says, “someone should be keeping track of them.”
Garret hands her a stack of notebooks. She flicks through them. They’re filled with scrawling, spidery, handwritten notes: dates, times, locations; sightings recorded, dens described, territories meticulously charted. There’s a hand-drawn map of all the trees the dingmauls had shattered with their tails.
“The flash flooding is getting worse,” he explains desperately. “I’m not the only one who’s noticed. The Sheriff is breathing down the Mayor’s neck about it. It’s only a matter of time before this part of the forest is off limits for reasons of public safety. This place’ll practically be a dingmaul sanctuary once that happens. When their population is stable… when they’re thriving… then there’ll be no stopping the headlines.
“But please,” he says softly, “for now, let them live in peace.”
They leave the woods behind with a mound of Mrs. Peck’s farewell sandwiches on Devin’s lap.
“Well, Team Sideways,” Steve says, behind the wheel of The Mystery Machine, “another case closed. Good job.”
From the backseat, Joe scoffs, “More like a case of another cover up.”
“I mean, yeah, okay, that’s true. But it’s all for the greater good.”
“That’s what the bad guys always say,” Joe says grumpily, but when Devin glances back at him, he’s smiling.
A thought strikes her. “Does this make us the MIB?”
Steve looks down at his shirt. “Nope, I’m definitely wearing green.”
“I’m in grey!”
Devin rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“You mean--?” Steve looks at her and then at Joe, in the rear-view mirror. In unison the guys belt out, “Here come the men in black…”
“Oh god.” Devin slumps down in her seat. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“One day you’ll learn.”
Devin laughs and sings along. What the hell: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Besides she’s the only one who knows all the words.