Authors: Richard Laymon
“Does this mean we’re almost there?”
“Time to start thinking about it,” she said.
She spread the paper open across her thighs. There was no map, just handwritten directions. She looked at it briefly, then put it away and patted it. “There’ll be a road on the right with a sign for Jacktooth Mountain.”
“And we take it?”
“Nope. We check the odometer and go about twelve miles more. There’ll be a big rock on the left.”
“A rock? That’s a great landmark.”
“Some lovebirds painted ‘Bill & Marie, 69’ on it surrounded by a heart.”
“Romantic. Do you think that’s a year or their favorite pastime?”
“If it’s a year, it’s been around a long time.”
“Maybe they make annual pilgrimages to touch it up.”
“At any rate, after the rock we go about two hundred yards and there’ll be an unmarked road on the right. We take that and follow it to the end. Then we’ll be there.”
Rick looked at his wristwatch. “Almost three,” he said.
“Jean said it’s about two hours from the Jacktooth Mountain sign.”
“Lordy. I hope we spot it soon.”
They passed it forty-five minutes later. Rick checked the odometer, added twelve to the mileage, and kept an eye on the slowly turning numbers.
Eighteen miles later, they spotted the rock. Bill and Marie had not been the only artists to leave their mark on it, but they’d been the most ambitious. Their heart, names and number were faded but twice the size of the surrounding graffiti.
“Two hundred yards,” Bert said.
“Want to get out and pace it off?”
“Thanks anyway. It might be a mile the way Jean gives directions.”
Rick slowed the car. The area to the right was thickly wooded, the spruce and pines brilliant green in the sunlight but dark in the shadows beyond the edge of the road. It looked foreboding.
Rick flinched at the blare of a honking horn. He checked the rearview. A van bore down on them. Without slowing, it veered into the other lane and rushed by. It had a mountain landscape, red in the sunset, painted on its side panel. Rick watched it speed around a bend.
“There!” Bert stuck an arm out of the window and pointed.
Rick eased off the road and stopped. He peered through Bert’s window. “You think that’s it?” he asked.
All he saw were tire tracks like parallel walking paths leading into the woods. Between the tracks was a hump with foliage growing on it.
“Fondly referred to as ‘the fun part,’ ” Rick said, and steered onto the twin paths.
Only a few dusty shafts of sunlight slanted down and mottled the forest floor, not enough to dispel the gloom of the heavy shadows. The car rocked and bounced along. Sometimes, the springy limbs of nearby saplings brushed the sides of the car or scraped along with squealing sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Rick wondered vaguely if they were scraping the paint.
The least of my worries, he thought.
“What happens if we meet another car?” he asked.
“It’ll get interesting,” Bert said.
“Or have a breakdown?”
“We’ll call the Auto Club.”
“You worry too much.”
A rock on the center hump scraped and clattered against the undercarriage.
Rick took one hand at a time off the steering wheel and wiped each dry on his trousers.
The tracks rose up a gende grade and dipped on its other side. At the bottom, the tire ruts were puddles. The water whooshed as Rick drove through.
“Thirty miles of this?” he asked.
“Maybe it gets better,” Bert said.
Around the next curve, the way was blocked by a fallen branch. Bert shrugged.
“You don’t suppose,” Rick said, “someone put that there to discourage us?”
“Could be an ambush.”
Rick smiled, but he scanned the nearby trees before climbing out. Quickly, he walked in front of the car and stopped at the broken end of the limb. He crouched over it. The branch had neither been sawed off nor hacked with an axe.
Of course not. Rick felt a little silly for even suspecting such a thing. There was a long split up one side. The limb had simply been torn from a tree by its own weight or a strong wind or a burden of winter snow.
He lifted it with both hands and stepped across the tracks, swinging it out of the way. He gave it a shove and let go. The limb dropped with a soft thud onto the brown mat of pine needles. There was sap on the index finger of his left hand. He bent the finger and felt the skin stick. He sniffed the brown stain. It smelled like a Christmas tree.
Turning back toward the car, he saw Bert behind the steering wheel. He went to the passenger door and climbed in.
“Mind if I drive?” she asked.
Bert seemed to enjoy it. Rick enjoyed watching her. She sat forward, away from the seat back, and peered intently out of the windshield. She held the steering wheel with both hands. Sometimes the tip of her tongue appeared at the corner of her mouth.
As time passed, however, Rick found himself watching the woods more often than he watched Bert. He gazed out the windows, half expecting to spot someone in the deep shadows sneaking around among the trees. He saw no one. But the farther they traveled along the dirt tracks, the more certain he became that they were not alone. Once, a sudden moving shape deep in the woods made his heart jump before his mind registered that the shape was merely a deer.
This is going to be a long week, he told himself, if you don’t settle down. Nobody’s out there. Nobody’s stalking you.
But he wished his revolver were close at hand, not in the car’s trunk at the bottom of his backpack.
He kept watching the trees. Sometimes, he looked over his shoulder and gazed out the rear window. If they were being followed, the man or vehicle was not in sight. Could someone looking closely at the tracks tell that their car had recently made the passage? He remembered the limb that he had lifted out of the way and wished he’d had the sense to place it back across the tracks after they’d gone by.
“What are you doing?” Bert finally asked.
“Just enjoying the scenery.”
“You look like a cemetery guard keeping an eye out for spooks.”
“Just a little edgy,” he admitted, and made a weak smile.
“Hey, if there was anything to worry about, do you think I’d come out to a place like this? I’m the world’s greatest chicken. I get the willies all the time. You should see me when I get back to my apartment at night. Especially after I’ve been with you and it’s late. I check behind the furniture, look in closets. I’ve even been known to look under the bed. And I’ve usually got a great case of the shivers till I’ve made sure nobody’s lurking around.”
“Absolutely. I always figure some drooling maniac has gotten in, somehow, and is just waiting for a chance to rape or murder me. Or both.”
“You’re kidding. You?”
“Had me figured for a fearless Amazon?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I knew you were no Amazon. You’ve got two boobs.”
Bert grinned. “But really, the way I see it, a certain percentage of people are criminals or dangerous nut cases. Therefore, the smaller the population, the less danger of running into one. When you get out in a place like this, there’s almost nobody so your chances of meeting a creep diminish to almost nothing.”
“On the other hand,” Rick said, “the larger population works to your advantage in that the nut has a larger pool of victims to choose from. Start decreasing the population, you might have fewer nuts but it also knocks down the odds that someone else will be the victim.”
Bert nodded. “So if there is a nut out here, we win by default.” In a teasing voice she added, “Better keep a sharp eye out.”
Though Bert was making light of it, Rick wished he hadn’t pointed out the less comforting side of her argument. Getting her worried would serve no purpose. He should’ve kept his mouth shut.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in wilderness areas,” Bert said after a while. “I’ve never run into trouble so far.”
“That probably hurts the odds on this time out, huh?”
“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Rick said.
In the silence that followed, Rick’s uneasiness came back. He felt a strong urge to resume his watch of the surrounding forest, but he fought it. He watched Bert instead. Then he lay down on the seat and rested his head on her lap. Drawing up his knees, he propped his feet on the window sill.
Bert smiled down at him. “Comfy?”
Rick felt her warmth through the fabric of her shorts. Her flat belly eased against his cheek sometimes when she inhaled. The front of her loose shirt, jutting out like smooth hills just above his eyes, stirred slightly as the bouncing, rocking motions of the car shook her breasts.
“Down there,” she said, “you can’t keep a look-out.”
“The view’s fine.”
She let go of the wheel for a moment and brushed a hand through his hair.
“If you’re nervous about going back to your apartment at night,” Rick said, “how come you won’t stay over at my place?”
“I believe we’ve been over that ground.”
“Well, you could do it sometimes. Maybe just on weekends.”
“It might start with just weekends, but pretty soon that wouldn’t be enough. I know men, and I know myself. Before long, you’d be pointing out with infallible logic that keeping my apartment is a wasteful expense, that I should move in with you and get rid of it.”
“And you,” Rick continued for her, “value your independence too highly—”
Bert stopped the car.
Rick’s stomach did a small flip, but he managed a smile. “And I was just getting comfortable.” He sat up slowly, keeping the side of his face against Bert. His cheek nuzzled her breast. He turned his head and kissed it. Her nipple was stiff under her shirt. He opened his mouth wide and ran his tongue over the fabric.
Bert slapped his stomach gently. “Stop it,” she said. “People are watching.”
Rick stopped. He bolted upright and looked out the windows. Perhaps he’d sensed rather than seen somebody back there in the trees. He stared. Hard. Nothing moved.
“Just kidding,” she said. She pinched the cloth away from her breast. “Look what you did.”
His mouth had left a dark wet patch on the blue pocket. “But it felt good, right?” he asked.
“Better get into a dry shirt.”
She gave him a smirk, then took the key from the ignition and rolled up her window. She punched the lock button down. Rick watched her climb out. The back of her shirt was wet and clinging, though not as wet as he’d made the pocket. She swung her door shut.
The car had stopped in a clearing. Rick saw no tire tracks ahead. There was a heavily wooded slope, dim with shadows. Looking out of his window as he cranked it up, he saw that the clearing provided enough room to allow the car to be turned around. He elbowed down his lock button, then checked the rear doors. They were secure.
He joined Bert behind the car as she opened the trunk. She gave the key case to him. “Don’t lose it,” she said.
Her comment triggered new worries. What if he lost the keys? What if they came back here, ready to depart, and the battery was dead? What if the car had two flat tires? What if it was vandalized or stolen while it sat here unguarded for a week?
So many things could go wrong. They might get through all the camping unscathed only to find themselves stranded when they were ready to leave. By that time, their food supplies would be depleted ...
Bert reached into the trunk.
“I’ll get it.” Rick lifted out her pack. He held it while she slipped her arms through the straps. Then he propped his own pack on the edge of the trunk. Bert held it steady. He crouched and found the straps. Standing, he felt the solid weight pressing his shoulders and back.
Bert took their hats from the trunk and shut the lid. She plopped Rick’s hat onto his head and put on her own. It was a tan, Aussie hat with one side of the brim turned up. It might look silly on some people, Rick thought. On her, it looked great.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Now we find the trail and start walking.”
“Maybe we should spend the first night here.”
“Sleep in the car?”
“There’s a thought.”
“Jean said there’s a nice area near a stream about half a mile from here.”
“The way she gives directions, it’s probably two miles.”
“We’d better get moving, then. Need to get there before dark.” Bert dug deep in a pocket of her shorts. She came up with a compass, held it flat in her open hand and studied it. “Trail should be thata-way,” she said, and pointed to the left.
Rick followed her past the front of the car.
“Ah-ha!” she said.
At the edge of the clearing, nailed to a short brown post, were two slats of wood with carved messages. She pointed to the left and indicated that Mosquito Pasture was two miles distant. The other pointed straight ahead. Dead Mule Pass was eight miles in that direction.
“Encouraging names,” Rick muttered.
Bert smiled back at him. “You’ll be glad to know we’re not heading for Mosquito Pasture.”
“Dead Mule Pass doesn’t sound like the Garden of Eden.”
Bert tucked a thumb under each of her shoulder straps. She flexed her knees and pulled the straps as if to adjust the fit of the pack.
The wet patch on her pocket was still dark.
She turned away and started walking down the trail.
Rick looked back at the car. Then peered into the deep shadows among the trees. Get a grip, Rick. There are no boogey men out there. Believe me
Hurrying to catch up with Bert, he began to sing. “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go.”
The parking area under Gillian’s apartment building was deserted. She slid her suitcase onto the floor of the car in front of the passenger seat, set down her purse, then went around to the rear and opened the trunk. Reaching inside a nylon satchel, she took out a pair of license plates. It was one of six sets she had removed, late one night last month, from cars parked along a secluded lane in Brentwood. She had used WonderGlu to fix strong magnets onto the back of each plate.