The CliffMature

This is the first chapter of a supernatural murder mystery, set in the mountains of Colorado.

The dreams were getting worse. She woke again and again that night, chilled and sweaty, the electric shock of fear still pounding from her chest. The nights had been so long this week, and yet it was the quiet of the day that seemed somehow an illusion.  She plodded numbly through her tasks at work, and her voice seemed a tin echo as she answered the phones. More than once she caught the nervous glance from the billing clerk, and the customers who came to her window did not exchange the usual niceties in conversation, but seemed eager to leave.  

She sat up in bed as the sun finally rose, dry mouth, sunken eyes, and tight skin. She knew what she must do. She knew what it wanted.  A backpack sat in the middle of her hallway, still clutching grass and leaves in its zippers and the black canvas looked grey under a film of trail dust.  Jordan picked it up and pulled open a side pouch, removing a sharpening stone and a double edged blade. As she dragged the blade across the stone, over and over, beads of water rolled across its oiled surface, and she realized she was sobbing.

The air rushed joyfully into Coulter’s lungs, crisp with the smell of pine. His legs and feet springing against the soft dirt, he began his ascent up the mountain.  This was his favorite part of the trail.  The trailhead had begun amidst scrub oak and sage brush, and now, as he crossed over a small creek, the trees broke the skyline, towering pines and graceful aspens. The trail closed in by a broken wall of young forest.  He pulled a mouthful of water from his Camelbak and rinsed the grit from his front teeth.  He had been smiling all morning, and was surprised he didn’t have a few gnats or aphids in his teeth after the bike ride to the trailhead.  The hike had become a weekend tradition for him, but he was enjoying it even more than usual today, as his thoughts rested on the small, satin lined box that sat in his fanny pack. Tonight was the night.  

He and Kelly had been dating for only eight months, but were practically living together already.  He stopped mid-stride, as a wave of panic passed through him. Should he have spoken to her father first? From what Kelly had described of the man, the fire chief of her hometown in Wisconsin, he was sure to be the old fashioned kind of dad who might just show up at Coulter’s door with a sawed off shotgun if he didn’t think him worthy of his precious daughter.  The reservations were already made for this evening at Kelly’s favorite Indian restaurant, and Coulter had spent weeks finding a conflict-free diamond and designing the setting for the ring.  Well, he didn’t get cellphone service out here anyway.  Pushing on, he decided to go through with his plan and, assuming she said yes, worry about her father and his shotgun later.

Half a mile up the trail, the bald crest of the mountain was visible through the wind battered trees.  The aspen groves were gone and the pines were shorter with sparse branches. The scree field just south of him was littered with porous basalt boulders, hints that this mountain had once been a massive volcano which exploded in Mt. St. Helen’s fashion, blasting the top clean off and covering the valley in ash and magma.

Coulter’s attention was drawn back to the woods, as he heard the snap of brush to his left.  A deer perhaps? His eyes cautiously searched the trees. Other trail junkies had reported a young cougar up here last season. He took several more steps forward and then froze.  A young woman stood in the trail in front of him.  Blood trickled down her face from a gash at her brow, and as she crumpled to the ground she reached out toward him. “Help Me”, she gasped.

His first aid training kicking in, Coulter rushed over to the injured girl and looked her over, trying to assess her condition. Kneeling down, he put his hand on her shoulder and looked at the smear of blood on her forehead. “What happened?” he asked, untying his handkerchief from around his neck. As he dabbed the blood away, there was no cut. Confused, he began to look her over for another wound. Then he felt the cold sting of the blade as it pressed into the skin at his throat.
“Stand up slowly, and put your hands behind you.” She stated flatly, as if she was ordering a pizza.  She cinched his wrists together with a zip tie and pushed him forward, forcing him up the trail. “What do want?” pleaded Coulter. “I don’t have any money with me, but I’ll give you my car keys. It’s a Subaru Outback, pretty new, and you can have my bike at the trailhead. I’ve put like two grand into it “.   “Just keep walking, and shut up” she bristled. The knife was at his back now, pressing in at kidney level.  “Ugh, Ok, OK!” he stammered.

Come on get ahold of yourself, thought Coulter. You can easily overpower her. You just have to get the knife away first. Damn, it was sharp. He felt the wet swath of fabric where she was pressing it at his back, and knew he was already bleeding.  If he tried to swing around to grab her now, she would dice his kidney or slice open his spine before he had the chance to twist the knife from her hand. He took a deep breath and resigned himself to walking a little further. As they rose up to tree line, usually Coulter’s resting point on the trail before it arched over the side of the mountain and wound its way down to the valley on the other side, the woman shoved him toward a small deer trail that followed the ridge line toward the summit of Baker Mountain. Yet another uneasy thought came to Coulter. She might have others waiting farther up, and his chances of escape would be much worse then. He had to act now.

Thrusting his right leg back, he kicked her legs out from under her, and then shrieked as the blade plunged in as she fell into him, instead of backward.  He regained his composure and ran back toward the trail, but it was too late.  A ringing in his ears and the grainy spots of a blank TV channel flashed in front of him, and then, darkness.
 Jordan lay on her back, stunned and gasping for air.  She heard the hiker’s steps moving away behind her, and then a soft thud. She pushed herself back up on her feet, and looked around for the hunting knife. He must have taken off with it.  Rubbing her aching back, she looked in the direction of the thud and saw the blue sleeve of the man’s shirt in the grass.  As she approached, she saw the knife, still stuck in his back, and surrounded in blood.

“Shit, Shit, Shit!” She slammed her fists against her thighs in frustration. She would have to act quickly in case another hiker came up the trail.  Pulling her backpack off, she grabbed her first aid kit, slid the knife out, and packed and bandaged the wound.  It wasn’t too bad, she thought. He would probably wake up soon.  Jordan reached under the man’s arms and began to drag him deeper into the trees, until they were no longer visible from the main trail. Leaving him slumped over behind a large boulder; she looked to see how close they were to the clearing. Not far now.  She could feel the icy prickle of eyes upon her, and her head began to throb as it called to her. Its hunger screaming like a thousand nails on a chalk board.  She had no choice, she told herself. And tears streaming down her dirty face, she once again began to drag the man’s limp form up the mountain.

Coulter opened his eyes and groaned.  His body shook with the sharp pain that shot up his back and down his left side.  His face was pressed into wet grass, and as raised his head, he saw that he was in the middle of a large clearing, surrounded by dense brush and forest. He did not recognize this place. How long had he been unconscious? As his memory jolted back, his eyes darted around the meadow, searching for the girl, or maybe her companions, but no one else was there.  But he was not alone. He could feel someone watching him. Sitting up, he looked around at the edges of the clearing, expecting someone to step from its depths at any second.  It was twilight and he thought of Kelly, sitting alone in the restaurant. Then he heard it. A shrill, piercing scream seemed to come from beneath him and all around him.  He pressed his hands against his ears, desperately trying to block out the sound, but now it was no longer coming from the clearing, but from within him.

Third cup of coffee before 6 Am., and he still couldn’t shake the damn dream. Rick shuddered as the images burned in his mind again.  The corona of midday sun and glimmering Aspen leaves, his bare toes cooling in a clear mountain stream, and then the stab of cold fear, Sierra barking and the woman, pale and frightened, washing a bloody blue shirt in the stream.  He could still hear her screaming.

Sienna’s ruddy tail wagged like a metronome, hitting the edge of the lazy boy with each swipe.  She whined at him softly as she held a damp stuffed animal in her mouth, its species unrecognizable under smears of dirt and dog drool.  “Alright girl, let’s take this party outside.” Rick groaned.  It was her day off too, he thought to himself, and I’m awake now.

 Rick Burrows and his dog Sienna had been training the newest Search and Rescue Dog team for the last two months, after a particularly frequent avalanche season, and now that he had a few days off, of course he was having nightmares. “Figures” he said out loud. As he tossed the manky toy halfheartedly across the yard, his cellphone began to buzz in his pocket and the caller ID flashed GAME ON.   “This is Rick. What have we got?”

It took him just under an hour to pack his gear, and Sienna was already sitting eagerly, nose up, by the front door.  “Ok, girl. This is number 88. Let’s make it lucky for the poor son of a bitch.” Rick smiled at Sienna as he fastened the strap on her bright red coat.  Search and Rescue Dogs Of Colorado was printed down the sides in white block letters.  He put his hand to the doorknob, then thought, better have one more cup of coffee.  

As Rick pulled up to the trail parking lot, which was now full of rescue vehicles and various medical and law enforcement personnel, he made a mental list of facts about the lost hiker. Coulter Hughes:  28, six foot one, light brown hair, last seen riding his mountain bike up the dirt road near Two Mile Reservoir, headed toward Baker Mountain trail. He’d been missing in the field for over 72 hours now.  Colorado Search and Rescue’s chopper had made four passes of Baker Mountain and nearby Table Mountain, with no visual on the man. The guy was an avid hiker though, and if he was resourceful enough, and not seriously injured, there was still a chance they would find him alive. Those moments were precious in Rick’s line of work. More often than not, they brought back body bags.

Through the chaos in the parking lot, Rick’s gaze landed on a friendly smile. Cathy Franklin, a volunteer for a local Mountain Rescue chapter walked toward him. He beamed at her, but she bent down and opened her hand to reveal a dog biscuit. “Sienna! It’s been way too long, girl! How is this old slob treating you?”  She threw a crooked grin at Rick, revealing a deep dimple in her left cheek, a pleasant feature on her goggle tanned face.  “You running this circus Cathy?” started Rick, but his joking manner faded as a young blonde woman approached, the look of concern on her face meant she must be family.  “Are you the one I’m supposed to give this to?” She said, almost inaudibly, holding up what appeared to be a sock in a plastic bag.
“Does that belong to Mr. Hughes, Miss?” Rick took the bag from her as her hand began to tremble slightly.  “Um…sorry. I’m Kelly, Coulter’s girlfriend. I’ve talked to so many people in the last two days. I’m just kind of on auto-pilot. His parents are flying out tomorrow from Chicago.” she tried a self-deprecating smile, but Rick could see the fear and stress behind her glassy eyes.

“Don’t you worry about it young lady. Rick Burrows, Mountain Rescue." he shook her small, nearly limp hand. " Sienna is the best Rescue dog in the state- and a lot more than that, if you ask her. We’re just going to get a quick update from the team here, and then we’ll hit the trail.  Coulter’s been holding on a long time out there, and we’re not going to waste any time finding him. “ Rick put his hand on her thin shoulder and gave his warmest smile.  There was still hope for the kid, and if not, well, best to deal with that when the time came.  

After looking over the map with the volunteers from yesterday, Rick decided to head directly up the trail first and see if Sienna caught the man’s scent. Then he would branch off in the direction of the summit, not yet covered by the ground team.  Cathy came up behind him, with a sizeable bag of medical gear,

The End

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