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Authors: Merry Jones

In the Woods

BOOK: In the Woods
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Contents

Cover

A Selection of Recent Titles by Merry Jones

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgements

In the Woods

A Selection of Recent Titles by Merry Jones
The Harper Jennings Series

SUMMER SESSION *

BEHIND THE WALLS *

WINTER BREAK *

OUTSIDE EDEN *

IN THE WOODS *

THE NANNY MURDERS

THE RIVER KILLINGS

THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS

THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS

 

* available from Severn House

IN THE WOODS
A Harper Jennings Mystery
Merry Jones

 

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

 
 

First published in Great Britain 2014 by

SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of

19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

This eBook first published in 2014 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2014 by Merry Jones

The right of Merry Jones to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Jones, Merry Bloch author.

In the woods. – (A Harper Jennings mystery)

1. Jennings, Harper (Fictitious character)–Fiction.

2. Murder–Investigation–Fiction. 3. Women veterans–

Fiction. 4. Iraq War, 2003-2011–Veterans–Fiction.

5. Suspense fiction.

I. Title II. Series

813.6-dc23

ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8444-2 (cased)

ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-551-3 (trade paper)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-597-0 (ePub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland

To Robin, Baille and Neely

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Heartfelt thanks to:

the team at Severn House, especially my editor, Rachel Simpson Hutchens;

Rebecca Strauss, my agent;

supportive colleagues and pals at the Philadelphia Liars Club;

encouraging family and friends, most of all my first reader and much loved husband, Robin.

A
l Rogers unzipped his tent just before sunrise. The air was chilly and smelled like dead leaves. Nothing moved; it was too early or too late, that time when night creatures had found their dens and day creatures hadn't begun to stir. That time when nothing ever happened. Even the trees looked drowsy. Still, Al hesitated before going out. He hadn't slept much. Kinsella had kept him up, calling him on the radio, whispering that some beast was outside his tent. Al had checked and seen nothing. But every time he'd fallen asleep – boom, Kinsella had radioed again.

‘Do you hear it?' he'd asked.

‘All I hear is you, Kinsella. Go the hell to sleep.'

‘Listen – wait. Did you hear that?'

Al had listened. Had heard something that sounded like an owl. ‘It's a hoot owl.'

‘No. Not that. I mean the creeping and thumping.'

The what?

‘Something heavy. And big. I swear. It's that Bog Man.'

Christ. ‘Grow up, Kinsella. There is no such thing as a Bog Man. He's like the Bogey Man. He doesn't exist. If you're hearing anything, it's an animal looking for food. Shit, did you hang the bear bag high enough? He'll eat all our—'

‘I'm not goofing around, Al.' When he was nervous, Jim's voice rose in pitch. It had become high falsetto. ‘Don't tell me it's a bear or a fox. It's not. It's something heavy and huge. Jesus – I hear it. It's right outside my tent.' His voice was tight. Soprano.

Once again, cursing, Al had opened his tent and peered out. Once again, he'd seen no one. Nothing but the woods, the sky, and the curving hulk of Kinsella's tent. ‘You ought to know better,' he'd scolded Kinsella. ‘You've been walking the pipeline, what? Two years? By now you should be used to it. If you spend too much time out here, you start to imagine things. You got to learn to ignore it. Take charge of your mind.'

‘I am not imagining—'

‘Look, Kinsella. I don't know what the fuck you been smoking. But you're fine. Relax. I'm going to sleep.' He'd promised that if Jim called again, he'd suffer a fate worse than any Bog Man could bring on. So Kinsella had stopped calling. And apparently he'd fallen asleep; his tent was closed up tight. Silent.

Good. Al would have some time to himself before Jim got up. Not that Jim was a bad guy; just that Al was better alone. Companionship that lasted more than an hour or two intruded on him, wore him out, and he and Jim had been together non-stop for weeks. Well, only eight more days. Then he'd have seven days off. No miles to walk, no pipeline to inspect. Nobody around him twenty-four-seven. He'd hole up in his condo outside Pittsburgh, take long, hot showers, sleep on an actual bed, order pizzas, stare at the tube, and stay there, avoiding traffic jams and jabbering humans until it was time to come back to work. Maybe he'd call Miranda.

Maybe not.

The morning was brisk, dewy. Al pulled on a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and boots, crawled out of his tent and looked around. Despite himself, Jim's bullshit had crept into his head. Not that he believed for one second that some abominable bog creature was lurking in the mist. Or that the indentations in the dirt were monstrous footprints. No, it was crap, all of it. The woods were simply a bunch of trees full of wildlife. A place that belonged to animals. Where humans were just visitors.

Above him, birds began to wake up, began twittering. Al took a deep breath and stepped away from camp, following a narrow path, savoring his solitude. He wasn't going to go far. He just needed a few minutes with no soil or water samples to take, no destination to reach, no responsibilities, no conversation. Nobody.

He stayed on the path, careful in the shaded light, dodging occasional puddles of old rainwater, fallen branches, rocks, logs. He loved the stillness, the crunch of his footsteps on fallen leaves, the sense of being where nobody could find or bother him. And these woods fit him like a coat. Snug. Close. But up ahead he saw a burst of light, as if the woods were coming to an end. How was that possible? According to the pipeline charts, the forest continued for miles. Probably it was just a small clearing. Al kept going, and sure enough, he came to a small open field, maybe an acre. He stopped at the tree line, gazing across. The grass stirred. A startled rabbit darted away.

The sky was brightening. Al's stomach rumbled. Time to head back, make coffee. Wake up Jim and start the day. Al stopped beside a tree to take a leak. At first, he thought the sound was his piss hitting the ground, but then he noticed it was getting louder and coming from behind, as if someone was rustling the foliage, coming up the path. Shit. Had to be Jim. Couldn't the guy leave him alone for a half hour? He looked over his shoulder to tell Jim to back the hell off. But the figure moving through the trees wasn't Jim. It wasn't even human. Al stiffened. Was it a bear? No, not a bear. Bigger. And it was stomping. Lifting its knees like a damned drum major. Shit – what the hell was it? Al peered through branches and watched in disbelief. It was coming toward him, covered head to toe with fur. And – oh fuck – it had fangs.

Al didn't stick around to see more. He whirled, his wrist scraping a broken branch as he tore ahead. Twigs scratched his face, snagged his shirt, but he didn't dare slow down or look around. He just ran, zigzagging, not sure in which direction he was heading, hopping over rocks, skipping over puddles, his heart flipping, breath raging.

Finally, panting, he stopped behind a fat oak and peered around. Saw nothing. No hairy fanged creature. Even so, he couldn't stop shaking, couldn't catch his breath. What the fuck had just happened? Had he actually seen the Bog Man? Had Jim been right about it stomping around their campsite? No. Couldn't be. The Bog Man wasn't real – it was just another Big Foot or Yeti myth.

But what he'd seen
had
been real. Big and hairy and marching down the path.

Al's teeth were chattering. Christ, he'd somehow gouged his wrist; blood streamed all over his sleeve and hand. Damn. He pressed on the wound. Would have to clean it when he got back to camp. But where was camp? He looked around, trying to orient himself. Nothing looked familiar. Shit. Okay. He'd just go back to the clearing and find the path again. As soon as his legs would support him.

Still shaky, Al doubled back toward the clearing, his mind on the creature. He moved slowly, quietly, cautiously. When a twig crackled somewhere, he jumped. When a squirrel darted in front of him, he froze. When he finally got to the clearing, the sun was peering over the treetops. Full out morning. He scanned the perimeter for his path. Maybe the thing had left footprints. If so, he'd call the forest ranger and have him come out. They'd track it, catch it. Figure out what the hell it was. He walked along the edge of the field, looking for the path, picturing fangs. Not noticing a person in the trees behind him, aiming a rifle at his back.

Before the bullet shattered his ribs and ripped through his right ventricle, Al had three final thoughts. The first was that if they captured the creature, he'd be famous and the press would hound him. The second was that he wished he'd brought his rifle, so he could have caught it right then. And the third was, oh damn, with all his running around, he'd forgotten to zip up his fly.

Harper Jennings couldn't sleep. Not because of the hard ground or the close fabric of the tent. She'd slept in much less comfortable conditions. No, the reason she was awake was that, for the first time since her daughter had been born two and a half years ago, she was spending the night away from Chloe. She hadn't even been able to talk to her by phone. They'd tried, but out here there was no signal. She wasn't worried; Chloe would be fine with Vicki and Trent, hadn't even cried when they'd said goodbye. She was growing up – she went to preschool three mornings a week, had play dates with little friends. Swim lessons, music classes. Chloe had her own life, apart from Harper. The problem was that Harper had no life apart from Chloe.

Ever since her birth, Chloe had been Harper's companion, the focus of her attention and her passion. Her full-time job. Now the baby wasn't a baby any more; she was a little girl, and Harper needed to back off and find something else to do.

Hank let out a ragged snort, began snoring. They lay side by side, their sleeping bags zipped together. She nudged his back; the snoring stopped for a breath, then resumed, louder. Never mind. It didn't matter what symphony Hank performed; she wasn't going to sleep anyhow. She felt disconnected, as if she'd left a limb at home. Couldn't stop thinking about Chloe. What book had Vicki read to her last night? Had she brushed her teeth? Had she sung the goodnight song? Had Chloe asked for her mommy?

Stop it, she told herself. Cut it out. Nothing was wrong. Chloe was fine. Hank was fine. She was fine. It was okay – in fact, it was healthy to spend some time apart. She turned onto her side, brushing her leg against Hank's. In his sleep, he responded, reaching an arm out, covering her hip. His body was always warm when he slept. In a minute, his arm would weigh heavy, roasting her. But for now, it felt snug. Solid, reassuring. Harper stroked it, amazed. How was it possible that they were in their brand-new tent, camping the way they used to before Hank's accident? She'd never imagined that they'd do this again. But there they were.

BOOK: In the Woods
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