Editor's note: This is an old-fashioned shoot-'em-up. If you're violence- or language- sensitive, please give this story a pass. Everyone else--this is a well-written action story with a lower body count than the opening scene of a Steven Segale movie. Enjoy! -N.K.
Detective Roger Bender wasn’t concerned with the death threats at the trial. His real concern was the local person running the lab was never caught. But with a major meth lab busted, he was off to escape the ills of the world. His refuge was the small shack his dad built on leased land in the North Maine Woods many years ago. No electricity, no cell phone service, lots of quiet. Roger knew the cabin needed to be torn down and rebuilt. Lots of memories of his dad, but the cabin had seen better days. Not much of a place, the furnishings included a wood stove, two metal-springed cots, a table with two chairs, a cribbage board and a dozen decks of cards.
Though to some the woods looked the same—forbidding, eerie and unforgiving, they were an old friend to Roger, who often volunteered for lost hunger search parties all too regularly. Once he left the main logging road, it was only thirty miles down a secondary road to the camp. Roger unloaded his Ford F150 and carried a camp stove, groceries, and a sleeping bag inside. Arrival dinner was the traditional red hot dogs and a can of beans, a tradition he couldn’t break. Good as always. Full moon tonight, might as well head out and run a trap line. No need for the 22 pistol to set up the traps.
With a pack basket full of traps accumulated over the years, his survival pack around his waist and a hunting knife, he set out toward Spider Lake setting traps along the way. The full moon provided near daylight for his walk. Roger grew warm in his wool hat, pants, and jacket. Five traps set. Crap, I keep meaning to discard this old bear leg trap. With the teeth, they haven’t been legal for years and they can break a leg.
Roger circled back to pick up the main road into the camp. From the top of an embankment, he stopped to take a leak and a flash in the moonlight caught his eye. There were three ATVs off the road hidden with a camouflage tarp. The three riders came prepared with the tarp. Odd. He wasn’t expecting company.
Roger approached the ATVs with caution and felt the engines. The engines were still warm. Mine is the only cabin on the road. He hustled down the road towards his cabin. Growing up in the woods, he knew how to walk silently.
Three minutes from camp walking on the road, the sound of automatic weapon fire froze him. What the hell is going on? In a full gait, he reached the hill looking down at the camp. Three men were emptying magazine after magazine into his camp. A Molotov cocktail landed on the stoop, another on the roof, a third inside his truck, and the shooting resumed.
Roger snapped back to reality. They’re carrying out their death threats. They think I’m dead. My advantage, for a while anyway. Roger, working on instinct, turned around, and in a full sprint, took off toward the ATVs. As he neared them, he and heard his truck explode.
In a matter of minutes, he smashed the spark plugs with the butt of his hunting knife. Three to one, but everyone on foot should even things up a bit.
Roger mounted one of the ATVs, noting where his foot was placed on the ground and set up the bear trap. I hope the God-awful thing breaks a leg. Leaves concealed the trap and Roger smoothed the entire area over with a fir bough.
Roger scrambled up the embankment and hunkered down about one hundred feet from the ATVs. The sound of three voices came down the trail.
“¡Se ha tostado!”
“English God dammit!” was yelled.
“Alejandro said, ‘He was toasted’,” said the small Hispanic man.
“I answered ‘yes’.”
“You tell’em Jose,” Alejandro said.
“Just keep to English.”
Christ! That’s Luke Sweeny. He must have been the local person running the lab we could never find. He has been to the cabin dozens of times. He knew exactly where I would go.
Luke Sweeny stopped at the ATVs and stared at the ground. “Stop walking.”
“Yo, mountain man, chill,” said Alejandro.
“No, stop. Something’s off...”
SNAP! The sound of a bear trap released was unmistakable to Roger. As were the blood curdling screams that immediately followed.
“Holy Mother of God! What is that thing?” asked Jose.
“Bear Trap. Roger wasn’t in the camp. The trap busted both bones in Alejandro’s leg. We have to stop the bleeding,” Luke monotoned.
Roger had never heard anyone sound so chilling. Luke was over the edge.
The screaming was getting quieter.
“He’s going into shock,” Luke said.
“Is he going to die?”
“If we don’t get him out of here soon, he might. We need to clear the area to insure there are no more traps.”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
From his vantage point, Roger watched Luke meticulously sweep the area with a long stout stick.
“Hurry up, man. Alejandro don’t look so good.”
“Maybe you want to walk up and hop on one of the ATVs?” Luke asked
Forty-five minutes later Luke was done sweeping the area checking for more bear traps. He hopped on an ATV and cranked and cranked it. The machine would not start. Luke tried the other two with the same outcome. He bent down and looked the machine over, then checked the others.
“The ATVs are disabled; spark plugs are busted off,” Luke announced. “We’ll have to walk out.”
“We’re thirty miles off a main logging road.”
Luke picked up a weapon and fired into the woods. Roger could hear the round ricocheting through the trees. “Roger, I know you’re watching and can hear us.”
“What the hell? He’s watching us? asked Jose.
“Yeah, he’s out there,” Luke replied.
“Alejandro hasn’t moved for 15 minutes. We need to do something,” Jose said.
Luke yelled into the woods, “Roger! Nice move with the trap. The hunted becomes the hunter. Game on like in the old days. I’m playing for keeps this time. Watch this.” Luke raised the rifle and shot Alejandro between the eyes.
“WHAT?” screamed Jose.
“Jose, he couldn’t walk thirty miles. Roger is going to hunt us. This ups our chances against Roger.”
Luke has lost it. But that makes it two to one.
“Roger and I grew up together in these woods. We played hunt and hunted for hours and sometimes overnight. I was always better than him,” Luke said.
What Luke didn’t tell him was that they joined the Army together and Luke’s failed psych evaluations finally caught up with him and got him booted out. Roger was a highly decorated Special Forces soldier in Iraq.
“And then Boy Scout Roger came home and joined the Sherriff’s Department. Coaches little league baseball, and works with church youth groups. A real hero.”
Out of the service, Luke never amounted to much, not that he did in the service, always in and out of the brig. He came home with a general discharge. That’s the discharge you get when you did something that you’d be jailed for as a civilian.
“Yeah, gonna be a dead hero, right? That’s what happens when they mess with our meth lab.”
Luke didn’t answer.
Jose just stared into the woods. “What we going to do now?” he asked.
“We’re going to start walking. If Roger had a gun, we’d been shot dead already. He is going to hunt us and choose the right time to strike.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because that’s what I’d do.”
“This was supposed to be simple. You bring us out, we shoot the cop, we leave. Now Alejandro is dead and we’re being hunted.”
“Roger was a Green Beret. Never simple with them.”
“But you’re better, right?”
Roger moved silently paralleling their movement. He smiled at the little Hispanic man turning around and looking into the woods every dozen steps.
“Enjoying this, Roger?” Luke yelled.
The cat and mouse game is on.
The duo slowly walked down the dirt road, eyes shifting continually.
Good, the slower the progress, the better.
Roger hurried ahead and cut through the woods, coming out on the road about a mile ahead. I have less than fifteen minutes before they get here.
Quickly gathering small branches, he built a teepee in the middle of the road just after a bend. A cough alerted him to their approaching and he scurried back into the woods.
Roger circled around behind the two.
“Stop,” Luke pointed at the stick teepee.
“What is that, man? It wasn’t here when we came.”
“He’s around here. You stay back and wait. Keep your eyes peeled.”
Perfect. Roger crept down to the road and was about forty feet behind Jose. Five seconds, five seconds…the pattern of turning and looking around was like clockwork. Facing the back of his pursuer, Roger launched three stones in rapid succession across the road and flattened out before they landed.
The sound of rustling leaves startled Jose. “There he is!”
Rat-tat-tat. Automatic weapon fire shredded the trees and leaves across the road. Just as quickly, there was silence.
“Jose, you fool. You just emptied your mag. Have any more ammo?”
“You did just what he wanted you to do.”
“Think I got him?”
“No. He was never over there. The teepee was a distraction to have you shoot off your ammo. Go into the woods and check if you got him if you want.”
You’re safe for now, Jose. You slow Luke down and make him more predictable. Basic training in threat assessment 101: take out the biggest threat; take out the leader.
“We should bed down,” Luke announced.
“Jose, you are not in charge anymore,” Luke said. “It won’t be daylight for hours. You’ve walked maybe two miles. How much longer do you want to walk? We’ll bivouac there under the fir. I’ll stay awake for the first shift.”
Luke wouldn’t have stopped walking, but this Jose guy wouldn’t have made it. Going to be cold with the full moon tonight. Should prove to be interesting.
Roger watched as the two settled in. When he was sure they were down for the night, he moved further away and farther down the road. Dad was right, never go into the woods without a survival pack. Roger opened the fanny pack and pulled out a space blanket. Toasty under the blanket, he settled under a fir tree overhang and allowed himself to nod off.
It was still an hour before daylight when Roger woke to a noise. Just a deer. A nice four pointer … gotta get going, they’ll try to get all the way out in the daylight.
He added a little water into the MRE and watched it rise to a boil. Ten minutes later his hot beef stew was gone, washed down by the rest of the small bottle of water. They’re no better tasting here than in Iraq. The sunrise quickly gave way to clouds. Good, rain will slow them down.
Roger went up ahead another mile and found what he was looking for. Just off the road there was a small space between two firs. A nearby sapling could be bent as a whip to snap back with his hunting knife attached. The backup knife in the pack is crap, gotta use the good knife. Risky giving up my good knife, but I don’t see any other options.
Now, if I could get between the two trees without setting it off…
It was all set up, I just need to lure Luke through the path. Another distraction? A sneak attack? Roger lay down in the ditch near his trap and covered himself with leaves. Sort of a make-do ghillie suit. And he waited. Motionless.
The two came around the corner swearing at each other. Not a good night, boys?” Jose stopped to take a leak at the edge of the road. Christ, four feet closer and he’d be peeing on me.
Roger leaped up and sprinted up the bank between the fir trees.
“I see him!” yelled Jose. “Right through those two trees. I’m going after him.”
A couple shots rang out and Roger listened to them ricochet off branches. He kept moving forward and stepped on a stick. The noise was deafening to his ears. Sounds of automatic weapon fire broke the silence and the branches around him. One slug hit him. Christ. Two tours in Iraq and I get shot in my back yard? Bicep, through and through, could be worse…and then he heard a scream, “God damn!”
Knife must have hit the mark. Roger checked his compass and headed northeast, grimacing in pain.
“Your leg is bad; you nicked an artery. See the spurt?” Luke asked.
“Shut up and apply pressure,” Jose pleaded.
This time, Luke yelled into the woods even louder, “Roger! Nice move with the knife trap. Jose just bled out. It’s just you and me now. Game on.”
Roger came onto the road at a bend, about two miles away from his knife trap and set up camp overlooking the road. The rain turned from a miserable drizzle to a hellish downpour. Roger tucked under a spruce overhang and dug out his waterproof matches and fire starter. Soon, a tiny fire was going, fed by dead bark and small branch pieces from over his head. He kept the fire small, but in the space blanket enclosure, it was warm and dry.
Now about some first aid. A piece of shirt in boiling water, bite on a stick, jam the cloth into the wound, easy peasy. I’ve been trained for this. As he jammed the cloth into his wound, he bit through the stick and passed out.
Roger’s head snapped back; it was still daylight. He blinked a couple times, and sat motionless. Must have really nodded off. Now he waited, listening to the rain that had changed back to a drizzle.
An hour later, Luke appeared down the road, alone. Roger scurried through the woods and started a small fire on the edge of the road. Then he climbed a nearby tree.
Luke came up the road walking erratically. No water and no food will do that as well as dull senses and slow reactions.
Luke stopped walking and stared at the smoking ember in the damp leaves. Come on, come closer. Luke started walking slowly toward the fire, but stopped short of it.
Suddenly, he raised the rifle and shot off a round into the woods and listens for movement. The man is spooked!
Satisfied, there was no movement, he walked forward, bent over, looked at the smoking ember…and Roger leapt from the tree with knife in hand. Luke looked up in time to see Roger flying at him feet first and squeezed off a round as Roger’s boots landed squarely on his chest, driving him into the road surface. Luke’s head hit with a loud thunk.
Roger raised his knife but saw there was no need. Luke’s skull was fractured. Roger straightened up and looked around. Nothing but silence.
The sky was brightening by the minute and the rain was over. To Roger, the air after a rain smelled like a new beginning. I guess I should call my insurance company about my truck. And reload my survival pack. Oh yeah, I should call the sheriff and have him send someone to clean up the mess.
Roger headed down the road toward civilization. In ten miles, I should be able to catch a ride with a logging truck out of the woods. I guess now is a good time to rebuild the cabin. Roger smiled.
He reaches across the table and brushes his finger ever so gently on the scar over her eye. The wail of a string quartet lulls Marguerite into a state of contentment. She rubs the knotty lumps on her eyebrow. A candle flickers in its circular holder, as she sips from her wineglass and smiles at him, taking in his river-blue eyes. The restaurant is busy, but not crowded. There's the clink of cutlery, occasional laughter, and the warmth of conversation.
It doesn't seem to bother him. He almost likes her more for it. Was it really ten months since the fall? The day that changed her life? Marguerite wonders if the hair will ever grow back over the silvery line she now fills in with eyebrow pencil. It doesn't matter if it won't. The scar is a token of her luck changing.
She stabs a spear of asparagus with her fork, dips it in something yellow and delicious, and then takes another sip of wine.
It happened ten months ago, in January.
Marguerite remembers stumbling on the gravel in Noonan Park. Splat. She'd landed badly. Blood had trickled from her brow to meet her eye. Her vision was smeared when she reached over to investigate the wallet that had tripped her up. Smooth black leather. Capacious. The sort of thing she imagined someone with big hands would use. Big purposeful hands.
Marguerite had walked to a bench and pulled a pack of Kleenex from her back pocket. She pressed onto her eyebrow. The wallet sat on the bench beside her. A woman pushing a pram jogged past at the speed of light. She looked serene. The woman was barely sweating.
Marguerite had thought about when she'd told Ben she wanted a child one day. Maybe two.
"I struggle to keep myself together," he'd laughed in the warmth of her bed. "Don't think I could care for a kid as well." He'd made it all about him, and they'd not had that conversation again.
Marguerite pulled the tissue away, its whiteness stained with crimson blooms. She pulled a fresh one from the pack and swabbed the cut again. It hurt.
Soon the cut was only oozing a thin pink fluid. She was about to chuck the spent tissues under the bench. Two old ladies in shorts stopped to ask if she was all right.
"I'm fine thanks," she said, and slipped the bloodied wad into the sleeve of her top instead. She waited until they waddled out of sight before opening the wallet. Four compartments, one zippered. She pulled it open, to release a clutch of coins. Maybe there was something with an address or phone number. She slipped her fingers into another section. A fat wad of notes peeped out. Unfamiliar greys and greens. Hundred-dollar notes. All of them were hundred-dollar notes. There were so many of them.
Marguerite looked around. She was alone. She forced the wallet closed. To hell with going for a run! Her life had just changed. She turned around and headed straight back with the wallet tucked into the elastic of her shorts. She could almost feel its insistent heartbeat against her skin, like the thing had a life of its own.
In the changing room, Marguerite shied away from Nancy, who clucked over her wound like a mother hen.
"You might need something on that, honey." Nancy placed her finger over Marguerite's eye. It made her wince.
"I'll be fine," Marguerite forced a smile and turned away, pushed a leg into her jeans. She wrapped her running gear around the wallet, threw it in her bag and walked out.
Running after work was part of Marguerite's new regime. She needed to look good. She was drinking less, eating sensibly, and trying to get her finances in order. Her plans included giving up on no-hopers like Ben, to let a proper boyfriend step in, a real man who would look after her instead of it being the other way round.
But maybe she'd have a celebratory bottle of wine tonight. Tonight, she felt lucky.
On the bus, Marguerite visualised the wad of cash, and tried to guess how much she had. How much did she owe on her credit cards and store accounts? It didn't matter. There was so much in the wallet. It was bound to cover everything. Perhaps she'd have some left over. Maybe she could stop off at the mall and get that cute pair of red heels she'd tried on last Saturday?
But something got the better of her.
She stayed on the bus until her stop.
It was raining when Marguerite let herself into the apartment. She pulled out a pile of papers from behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Bills, final demands and notices from bailiffs.
She opened the wallet. Oddly, there were no bank or credit cards, just a dry-cleaning ticket and a photograph of a man with an old woman. The woman had wrinkles around her eyes, but the blue in them was just like his. The sort of eyes Marguerite liked. Perhaps she was the man's mother? They both had almond-shaped faces. She liked the curve of his face too.
Marguerite had pushed the photo back in with a tinge of regret. She almost missed the business card with his name on it.
His number and e-mail beneath.
She pushed the card back in and counted the cash. There was more than she'd thought. She went through her papers and made a list.
There was enough to pay everything off. There would be enough for those cute red shoes. And more.
Her phone rang.
It was Ben. He rang every night, even though she'd not seen him for a week. She needed space. Time to decide whether there was room for him in her life.
"Can you lend me fifty, Margs?"
"When can you pay me back?" Ben was unreliable, but there was something about his roguish smile and those eyes that Marguerite found hard to resist.
"Oh, you know. Soon."
How much had she poured into Ben over the years? She scribbled dollar signs on the notepad she'd been using. She needed to finish the call. There were things to do.
"You'll never pay me back, will you?" She tore the page off the pad, and began to shred it. "You won't, because you never do."
"Aw go on Margs, I will this time. Promise." His voice made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. "You can afford it, Margs. It's payday soon isn't it?"
"That's not the point, Ben," she said, "I could lend you the money." She almost told him about her lucky find, but something got the better of her.
"Then do it." There was a petulant edge to his voice.
"I could lend you the money, but I'm not going to." She was shaking as she spoke. "I'm going to be straight with you, Ben, because honesty is the best policy." "You don't − "
"I don't want to do this any more."
"It's over. Goodbye," she'd pushed her words out, not allowing him to interrupt. "Don't ring me anymore."
Yes. Honesty is the best policy, she'd thought. Marguerite took the phone again, and pulled out the business card. Michael Hampton. Attorney.
Perhaps they could meet and-−perhaps. Maybe.
She clinks her glass against his, and taps her feet on the cross bar. Marguerite is wearing the red heels tonight. He smiles at her, and she takes in the oval of his face. They exchange snippets about their day. She gazes into his eyes. She's always loved those eyes. This is the second time they've been out for dinner this week. She looks at his hands, his big hands, and then looks at her own. She imagines a ring on her finger. Perhaps this could be the night?
She stops fiddling with the scar on her brow, and cringes as she remembers how she nearly did the wrong thing.
In the end though, something got the better of her. She thinks about how different her life could have been if she'd made a bad choice in January.
He leans over and kisses her.
"I'm going to the restroom." His voice is flushed with wine and the promise of things to come. "You get the check and I'll call us a cab."
She hesitates for a second.
You get the check.
Nothing more? Had she imagined it? Did she want her life to change so badly that she'd seen only what she wanted to?
Still, these things can't be rushed. She reaches for her purse, and the picture of the man and his mother falls out.
She lights a corner of it in the candle's flame, watches it burn.
There's only a wisp of smoke left when he returns from the bathroom.
Marguerite looks into Ben's eyes.
She's always loved his eyes.
NT Franklin writes after his real job hoping one day to have it be his real job. He writes cozy mystery short stories, nostalgia short stories, and Flash Fiction. When not reading or writing short stories, you might find him fishing or solving crossword puzzles.