Authors: Kris Bock
Tags: #Romance, #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense
About The Author
I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t do things like this.
And yet I kept walking, following Jay through the woods. I stepped carefully along the narrow path, but my good shoes would be dusty by the time we were done. My gaze flicked up to Jay’s long legs in faded jeans. His butt had been voted the best in our high school. It wasn’t the only reason I’d had a crush on him as a sophomore, but it definitely played a part.
Six years later, it was hard to believe I was really walking through the woods with him. Though we’d grown up together in a town of only 8,000 people, we’d rarely spoken. He was two grades ahead of me, but even if we’d been in the same year, I wouldn’t have traveled in his circles. I’d seen him around school or at the pizza parlor, I’d watched his basketball games, I’d felt sorry for him when I heard his dreams of playing college ball fell through.
Since I’d graduated, I’d only seen him around town when I came back to visit. We might smile and say “Hey” as we passed, the way acquaintances did. Yet a week after I’d moved back home, I was taking a long lunch to follow Jay into the woods. I felt like a giddy high school girl again.
I had to remind myself that I was twenty-two, an adult, with a brand-new college degree—with honors. I’d worked hard to get the Hospitality Degree that had landed me one of the few good jobs in the only place in town worth working. I’d come back to my hometown for my new job at the Mountain Inn and Resort and for my brother, not for Jay. And I was old enough to realize that we probably didn’t have much in common.
But when my high school crush noticed me for the first time and offered to show me the view from the plateau, how could I resist? I didn’t expect to start a beautiful relationship, but it was nice to imagine I’d turned into the type of woman who could attract a cool guy’s attention.
My heart was beating a little too quickly and I had to wipe my palms on my slacks. Despite the leafy shade, the air hung heavy and hot, the first really warm day of the year. It had hit 87 down in Albuquerque the day I moved, but summer came later in the central New Mexico mountains, at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet.
We entered a small clearing. Sunlight broke through the trees, dappling the long yellow grass. It was nice to be back in the mountains, back in these woods where I’d walked so often, after four years in a big city. I’d missed the green.
A bird rustled nearby. Jay turned and smiled at me. I smiled back, but my face felt stiff as I remembered his reputation with girls. At the time I’d envied those girls, with all the naïveté of a shy teenager who never got asked to go for walks in the woods with boys. Now I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. He’d said he wanted to show me the view and point out the changes since I’d been gone. But in high school, a “walk in the woods” wasn’t about the scenery.
I was being silly. We’d grown up since then. And we hardly had time to get into trouble. He couldn’t possibly assume we were sneaking out for a quickie after chatting for half an hour in the employee lunchroom. I’d told him I only had a few minutes.
“Come on, let’s go through here.” He pushed into the trees to the side of the clearing, rather than going forward on the established path that looped around the plateau and eventually back toward the resort. The view should be straight ahead.
I glanced back down the path, but the bright green of the golf course had disappeared around a bend. Still, we were just a few minutes from work. Maybe he knew another path, a smaller game trail.
It was easier to go along than to ask questions. If he had something more in mind than admiring the view, I could stop him later. But no need to cause a fuss yet.
A minute later he stopped in a smaller clearing, where a fallen log had cleared a space among the other trees. A nearby bank sloped down to a ditch that might carry a trickle of water later in the season, after the rains. I kept my smile in place and waited to see what he would do.
He swung toward me and reached out with one hand. I jerked back. My arm bumped against a tree and I felt the bark catch my sleeve. I looked down to free it, my face hot.
“Nervous?” Jay asked with a smile in his voice.
I shrugged and avoided his gaze. “You startled me.”
“Ah, sweet little Audra. Not so little anymore, and surely not so innocent?” He brushed his fingers over my hair where it draped over my shoulder just above my breast. I tensed but couldn’t move back without hitting trees.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small plastic baggie. He unrolled it and pulled out a handmade cigarette—probably a joint. Some of the other rumors about him came back, rumors I’d forgotten. He grinned the cocky basketball-star smile that had melted so many hearts, but it didn’t look quite the same now. For the first time I noticed the hollows under his eyes and the faint lines on his weathered skin. Could he really be just twenty-five? Had we all aged so much? Or had the years been harder on him?
He did work outside, which could account for some of the weathering. I was glad I always used moisturizer with sunscreen.
He lit up, took a puff, and held out the joint. I shook my head and struggled to keep a polite half-smile in place. He frowned and kept his arm extended. “Come on, you need to loosen up.”
My hand twitched, as if it wanted to follow his command of its own accord. I hated conflict. But I didn’t do drugs, and I wasn’t about to start. If I got fired from my job in the first week, I’d have a hard time finding anything else in town. I’d been away for four years, only visiting once a month, and I wasn’t about to make Ricky deal with Mom on his own any longer.
“Thanks, but no. I, uh, have some mild asthma and smoke makes me cough.” I’d found excuses like that more effective than a simple no thanks, which could lead to derision and pressure.
He shrugged and turned away, taking another puff. The smoke drifted toward me, confirming that this was no ordinary cigarette. I edged toward the ditch bank to get away from the smell. As an excuse for backing away, I leaned over to sniff the clusters of yellow blossoms on a gangly wildflower.
I almost gagged.
Could that stench really be coming from those pretty little flowers? I straightened, trying to breathe shallowly through my mouth and hide my disgust so Jay wouldn’t think I was disapproving of him.
Once I’d noticed it, the smell seemed strong all around me. Jay sat on the log and smoked. I paced the small open space, trying not to gag. It smelled of garbage, something rotten, decaying, dead. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to turn back and run through the woods, back to my small office where I could focus on my work. This was a mistake. I’d never belonged with Jay and never would.
My friend Katie’s voice sounded in my head.
Stop it! You’re channeling your mother again. Not all men are monsters.
He grinned up at me. “Come on, have a seat.”
I stared into his face as my stomach churned. How could he stand being in this place? Couldn’t he smell it? Or did his little cloud of pot block out everything else?
I managed a smile. “Can we go now? I don’t want to get in trouble my first week.”
He made a sound that might have been a short laugh or might’ve been a grunt of annoyance. “What’s the big deal? My dad’s the manager. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
But his dad wasn’t my direct boss, and having Jay ask his dad to tell my boss to go easy on me wouldn’t build the reputation I wanted.
He gave a smile that I would have found charming when I was fifteen. “Come on, sit down next to me.”
I hesitated. I should tell him I was leaving. Just walk away. But I couldn’t make the words come out. He might get angry, and as he’d said, his father was the manager.
I didn’t want to go back to the office smelling of marijuana. He had the joint in his right hand, so I finally sat on his left a couple of feet away. Once he finished his joint, I’d insist we leave.
He edged closer and put his arm around me. His right hand—fortunately empty—came up to my face. I hoped he hadn’t dropped the joint into the dry grass. Fire danger was at its usual early-summer high.
He leaned in and his lips touched mine. I flinched.
Jay leaned back. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
My face heated. “I’m sorry. It’s just….” I searched for an excuse that wouldn’t insult him. I glanced toward the ditch. “Something stinks here. It’s making me sick.”
He sniffed the air. “You’re right. Smells like something died.”
When he stood, I jumped up too. But instead of heading back for the main path, he walked closer to the ditch. It figured, a man notices something dead and instead of getting away from it he wants to poke around closer. I sighed.
Jay sniffed and then made a face. He pushed past a low-hanging branch and took a couple of steps down the ditch bank. I guess I have my share of morbid curiosity, because I edged closer.
Jay made a choking sound. He stumbled backward, turned, and bumped me hard as he pushed past.
“What is it?” I demanded
He leaned over the log, hands on his thighs, taking deep breaths. I looked toward the ditch, then back at Jay. What could have caused this reaction? Something dead, but larger and grosser than he’d imagined? I pictured a deer with maggots crawling all over it.
I shuddered. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to see it.
“Jay? Are you all right?”
He straightened, still breathing heavily. “We have to get out of here. It’s a body. I think—I think it’s a body.”
I stared at him, the words slowly sinking in. “You mean … a
He didn’t answer. I glanced toward the ditch and whatever it hid. “Are you sure?”
He shook his head. His skin looked gray, and his eyes seemed to stare at something no longer there. He lifted a hand and curled it into a fist over his chest. “There was … a hand.”
I swallowed hard and pressed my arm over my stomach. “We need to call someone.” But if we reported a body and it turned out to be an animal, we’d look like fools. “We have to know for sure.”
Jay made no move. I said again, “We have to know.”
I walked slowly toward the ditch. I ducked under the branch. The smell rose up to gag me and I put a hand over my nose and mouth. My face turned away, refusing to see. I had to force myself to turn my head, to keep my eyes squinted open.
Oh God. It was a body. A woman’s body.
The smell choked me and my vision blurred. Behind me, I heard Jay’s harsh breathing. I should have listened to my instincts.
I shouldn’t be here.
I staggered back to Jay. My face felt strange, my lips pulled back in a weird grimace. “We have to call someone. Nine-one-one. The police.” I fumbled in my pocket for my phone.
My hand trembled as I lifted the phone toward my ear. Jay grabbed my wrist. “No.”
“What do you mean? We just found a body! We have to report it!”