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Authors: Christina Dodd

The Relatives (6 page)

BOOK: The Relatives
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But even the National Forest Service can do nothing about Wildrose Valley. Wildrose Valley Road turns off the main highway, and rises up and up in hairpin turns that make flatlanders clutch and cringe. The surface is gravel, full of washboard stretches that beat a woman’s teeth together as she drives her rented black Jeep Cherokee toward the place where she had been born.

She tops the summit and there it is—the valley, slung like a hammock between the mountains. Ranchers had settled here in the early twentieth century, carving out tracts of land where they raised cattle and children, grew gardens and alfalfa, fought freezing cold and the Depression and bankruptcy.

But here and now, in August, the valley is wide, yellow with grass, dappled with cattle and antelope. Meadows stretch miles to the far horizon where the mountains close in. The Forest Service likes to think they protect the wilderness; in truth, the Sawtooth Mountains themselves are the sentinels and guardians of the land.

Taylor Summers had spent her first nine years roaming the Sawtooth Mountains in search of a safe place, away from her home, away from her parents’ constant, bitter arguments about her father’s ranch, her mother’s ambitions, and Taylor, who had somehow become the heart of their conflict.

Then, on her tenth birthday, she had moved with her mother to Baltimore, and was never again to see Wildrose Valley … until today.

She drove slowly down the steep grade and into the flatlands, absorbing the changes. Where small craftsman-style ranch houses had once stood, mansions now sprawled. Not many mansions, though; rich people bought wide acreages and surrounded themselves by vistas that could not be blocked.

Taylor didn’t blame them. Today, when she rolled down her windows, she heard nothing but the wind through the golden grasses and the occasional call of a bird. She recognized a few landmarks: a stand of maple trees where she used to play, the unpainted wreck of a barn where she’d swung in an exhilarating ride on a rope out of the hayloft and through the wide-open doors.

And there!
There
was the turnoff to the Summers ranch, owned by her family for over a hundred years, until her mother forced her father to sell it in the divorce and divide the profits.

Involuntarily, Taylor’s foot slipped off the accelerator and the car slowed.

Look!
The people who bought the place had put up a phony gate, and they had the guts to put up a sign calling the place
SUMMERS FOREVER
.

They not only had claimed her heritage, they’d also claimed her name.

The
bastards.

Taylor rolled up her windows, put her foot back on the gas, and drove through ruts and dust through the flats at the end of the basin toward her goal, where the mountains came together, squeezing the road like a vise.

An hour of driving too fast got her at last to the serenity of mountains. Here was the forest she sought. The air was thin, sharp, fresh with the scents of pine and earth and growth and, yes, surely … inspiration.

Taylor had always considered herself a true artist.

Sure, she had gone to college to study graphic design, and sure, she had segued into interior decorating. But for all that she had besmirched her talent with good jobs that made gobs of money, she hugged close a strong sense of superiority. Deep inside, she had believed that if she flung away the trappings of success and became a full-time artist, her talent would change the world.

So to celebrate the crashing destruction of her second engagement, she had flown to Salt Lake City, rented a vehicle, and driven north along the Wasatch Range. She stopped to sketch every vista, expecting that sensitive, brilliant, expressive art would form beneath her fingers ……

No. Not once. Not a hint of genius, of uplifting emotion or self-knowledge or glory or pain. All these years of believing in herself, and this … this was it?

Drawn by the conviction that if she got home, she would rediscover her muse, she drove north, into Idaho. In Sun Valley, she rented a room, spent the night, and now here she was, heart pounding as she pulled into an isolated picnic area. She backed the Cherokee into a parking spot hidden by brush and trees. She grabbed a bottle of water, her waist pack, and her drawing pad, and climbed out. She followed a trail that wound through the trees, looking for the one spot she wished, believed,
hoped,
would reignite her vision.

In less than a mile, the forest ended and a wide, green meadow opened its arms to her, and she recognized this place.
This,
far more than the ranch, was home. Here her father had taught her to camp, to hike, to hunt. Of all her early life, those were the moments she treasured.

Taylor climbed up on one of the smooth, massive black basalt boulders abandoned by the glaciers. To her left and her right, as far as she could see, forbidding and majestic pinnacles pierced the pale blue of the August sky. To capture the grandeur of the Sawtooth Mountains required bold-hued oil paints done on a large canvas by a master.

All they had was her.

But she was here, and she longed to pay tribute to the forces of the earth.

Opening her sketch pad, she took up her charcoal pencil and gave her soul over to the vista before her.

When she had finished, she pulled back and studied her achievement.

In high school, her art teacher had told her anyone could draw a mountain, but a true artist depicted the soul of the mountain and gave the viewer a sense of glorious austerity or forbidding heights or searing cold. A true artist created not art, but feelings: longing, terror, love. Most of all, Taylor’s art teacher warned her against making mountains look like ice cream cones.

Taylor could state with great assurance the mountains she had sketched did not look like ice cream cones.

They looked like ingrown toenails.

She rifled through her sketch pad, looking at each and every one of her drawings. How had she reduced the imperious majesty and eternal grandeur of the western mountains to such a disgusting human condition? She had dreamed of and planned for this, imagined her artistic talent would blossom in the place so long cherished in her childhood memories. Instead, she was a failure, such a failure that she was almost relieved when she heard a car bouncing along the washboard gravel road behind her. She shut her drawing tablet, slid off the rock, and headed into a stand of pines.

Not that she needed to hide. She had as much right to be here as anyone. But she was a woman alone. The car probably contained a rancher or some tourists, but wild game attracted out-of-season hunters, old gold claims dotted the creeks, and longtime residents carried guns. Up here, it was better to be safe than sorry.

When a black Mercedes came around the bend, hitting every rut as if it was a personal challenge, she grinned.

Rich tourists. She knew the type, city folks who could not believe that every road in America wasn’t paved for their convenience. She wondered how far they would go before the washboards defeated them, or before they destroyed their car’s oil pan on a protruding rock.

They passed out of sight behind a boulder as big as a house, where the road cut through the meadow, and there the sound of the engine cut out.

Probably they had a picnic lunch. They’d dine and head back …

She glanced at her watch. Two-thirty. Pretty soon, she needed to return to her rental Cherokee, too. It was a good two-plus-hours drive back to town. But first …… she started walking deeper into the woods, looking for something less imposing to sketch. A tree, maybe. Or a bug.

On the road, two doors slammed.

One man spoke, coldly, clearly: “Get him out of the trunk.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Taylor stopped.

Him? Out of the trunk?

She didn’t like this guy’s tone. She didn’t like his words.

Who, or what, was in the trunk?

“Do you think this is far enough?” The other man sounded itchy, nervous.

She started walking again.
None of her business ……

“How the hell much farther do you want to drive on that miserable crapfest of a trail? Jimmy said to bring him up here, find some place lonely, finish him, and dump the body—”

She froze.

“Isn’t this lonely enough for you?”

“I guess—”

A thump.

“Yes!”

Finish him? Dump the body?

She felt disoriented. Birds were twittering. Above her, massive Douglas fir trees wrapped the heavens in their branches and sang a song to the wind.

And someone within her earshot was talking about …
dumping the body?

“Then that’s what we’re going to do,” the first guy said. “You want to argue with Jimmy?”

“No. No,” the other guy stammered. “Not that scary bastard.”

Some guy named Jimmy had hired these guys to ……

The trunk latch opened with barely a sound.

A child’s scream filled the air.

This could not be happening.
Taylor could not be up here, alone in the most peaceful place on earth, trying to get back her artistic mojo, and bear witness to a murder. A child’s murder.

The second man said, “Jesus Christ, he hurled all over the trunk. I’m going to have to take this to the car detailers to get it cleaned up.”

“No, you’re not. How are you going to explain barf in the trunk? Tell them we were hauling a kid in there? Clean it yourself.” The first guy had a baritone voice, and when he rolled out the orders, he did it with authority.

Above the voices, the child’s wail became sobbing, punctuated by gasps for air.

Taylor did not want to be here.

But she was.

Chills ran up her arms, and she felt like hurling, too.

She left the protection of the trees and moved quietly into place behind the boulder.

She was safe here. She was. The boulder was as big as a house. Dense. Tall. Rolled into place by some ice age glacier.

She was safe.

She was a fool.

With her back against the rough stone, she slid and looked, slid and looked. Finally the car came into view.

And the men.

And the little boy.

And the guns.

Pistols, big pistols, held with casual familiarity in the men’s hands.

One guy was bulky and narrow-eyed. He was in charge.

One was thin and muttering. He held the boy by the scruff of the neck and shook him like a terrier with a rat.

The boy … the boy was about eight, white-faced, dark-haired, covered with vomit. Terrified.

Taylor was terrified, too. Her hands trembled. Her knees shook. Her heart thundered in her ears.

But she could still hear the casual slap Mr. Skinny gave the boy.

“Shut up,” he said.

The boy sobbed more softly.

She looked again. She recognized the big guy. Seamore “Dash” Roberts, running back, Miami Dolphins, big scandal, jail time, a career that barely survived in arena football … yeah.

The other guy wasn’t anybody. He was just, you know, sweaty.

Both guys wore suits. Up here. In the land of ranchers, Ford trucks, tourists, and the occasional tree-hugger. So these men in the suits were out of place. But they didn’t care. Because they were here to kill the boy and get out.

Good. Good. She could ID these guys … when she got down to the police department.
After they’d murdered that little boy.

“Where do you want to do it?” Mr. Skinny asked.

Dash glanced around.

Taylor flattened herself against the rock.

“There, by that tree stump.” He pointed. “That way we can prop him up. He’ll face the road and when McManus shows up, he’ll see him right away.”

“Let him search.” Mr. Skinny laughed.

The boy’s crying gave a hitch.

She glanced again.

He was terrified. Yes, he was. But he was also eyeing the men, looking around at his surroundings, like he knew he had to make a run for it. Like he knew he had to save himself.

“Christ’s sake, think about it.” Dash again, snappy and scornful. “There are wild animals up here. Wolves. Coyotes. We hide the body, they’ll drag it away and eat it. Jimmy will be furious. He’s paying, and he wants the most bang for his buck. Shock. Horror. All that crap.”

“He really wants to get this dude’s attention, doesn’t he?”

“You don’t want to get on Jimmy’s wrong side. He knows how to handle business.”

The child shivered convulsively. He wore a school uniform. A school uniform, for shit’s sake, with slacks, a pressed shirt and a tie. He was old enough to know he was going to die, and young enough not really to understand.

Well. Who did understand? She didn’t. She wished she could help him. But there was no way. She wasn’t carrying a gun. She couldn’t just run at these guys, guys who were obviously professional hit men, and save the kid. All she would do was die, too. That wouldn’t help the boy. She could do nothing but watch helplessly.

Even as she thought that, she was quietly, relentlessly tearing the sheets out of her drawing tablet. They were eight-by-eleven, good-sized sheets of paper with whipped cream clouds and ingrown toenail mountains.

She didn’t have a plan.

Or rather—it was a stupid plan.

But the wind was blowing. The stand of trees was no more than twenty yards away. If she ran fast enough and dodged quickly enough, she could get away. And she couldn’t stand to live the rest of her life knowing she didn’t make even the most feeble attempt to save a child from murder by two professional killers.

Stupid plan. So stupid. She was going to get herself killed.

She heard her father’s voice in her head.
Taylor, you can’t outrun a bullet.

She knew it. She really did. But the boy’s crying was getting louder again, the men more silent. They were getting down to business, which was to murder the child and pose him so that guy, McManus, saw him as soon as he drove up the road.

Shock. Horror. All that crap.

When she had freed a dozen sheets of paper, she put the tablet on the ground and stepped on it. Holding three sheets high above her head like unformed paper airplanes, she let the wind catch them, heard them flap, took a breath—and released them.

BOOK: The Relatives
9.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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