It wasn’t as if she knew what she was doing.
Okay. She didn’t know what she was doing.
Whitney reached into her car and grabbed her camera bag. She unzipped it and pulled out her DLSR and lens. She hooked the strap around her neck and stuffed an extra battery into the pocket of her jacket. She was slipping her phone in her other jacket pocket when it dinged.
Where are you?
She stuck her car keys in the pocket of her jeans and locked the car before answering.
At Cricket Falls. Taking pictures for class.
You’re still on the photography kick?
You make it sound like a hobby.
Listen Seth, I have spent a lot of money on classes and I need to practice. I really want to make this into something. Why can’t you support me?
Because it’s stupid and a pipe dream. Stick with the bank. You have a future there.
Whitney sighed and rolled her eyes.
Why can’t you support me?? She typed furiously.
I’m trying to prevent you from making a mistake.
Whitney was beginning to wonder if Seth was the mistake.
I can’t talk right now. I need to go before I lose the light.
She angrily tucked the phone into her other jeans pocket and briefly closed her eyes. She had been taking photography classes for nearly four months and she resented Seth for making her feel stupid. She wanted to enjoy the classes and he was making it impossible with his negativity and complaining.
Asshole, she thought.
She tugged a hairband in to push her curly black hair out of her eyes. She tested the door handle of her VW bug and set off toward the hiking trail. She hadn’t been to Cricket Falls in quite some time and she was looking forward to taking pictures at sunset.
She stopped just as she entered the tree line. She had forgotten her water bottle. She paused. She should probably go back and get it but it was already late afternoon and the sun would be setting in a little over two hours and it would take her nearly an hour to reach the falls.
She shrugged and continued down the path.
She stepped around tree roots and over smooth, flat rocks. She took deep, cleansing breaths. There was nothing like fresh air to clear the week’s cobwebs. She knew Seth wanted her to stay with the bank but she was bored. She wanted a job where she could be creative and spontaneous. She had no idea if she would be able to make any money at photography but she certainly wanted to try. She loved learning about F-stops and angles, lighting and focus points in class. It was challenging to look at something and then set up the perfect shot in order to try and capture the mood she wanted to portray.
The day was quickly cooling down and she was thankful she had grabbed a jacket. The sun was playing peek-a-boo behind distended gray clouds and it looked like a storm front was heading in. She paused to check the weather on her phone. She had to walk up an incline in order to get a better signal. Weather was definitely coming in but she figured she had about three hours before it reached her, plenty of time to shoot some pictures and make it back to her car before it rained.
Her phone dinged. She sighed and continued walking. It was probably Seth and she wasn’t in the mood to deal with him at the moment. She just wanted to enjoy the time she had and to focus on her pictures as she was hoping to touch them up and present them at her next class for critique. She ignored the text and kept moving. She glanced up at the sky. There were now more clouds than sun and she was beginning to think maybe she should head back to her car as she didn’t want to risk getting her camera equipment wet.
She was lost in thought and seriously thinking about turning around when she rounded a bend and there, in all it’s glory, was Cricket Falls.
She paused to to fully absorb the sheer magnificence of the beautiful waterfall. The falls were not as swollen as she had seen them in the past but she knew it would only be a matter of minutes after the rain started to turn the relatively calm waters into a raging, angry flow.
She heard a crack of thunder and it made her jump into action. She lifted her camera, adjusted her settings and began taking pictures from various angles. She was actually glad the sun had disappeared behind the clouds as it provided her with better light and a somber atmosphere. After taking about twenty shots, she was placing her lens cap back on the camera when another round of thunder reverberated above. She nervously eyed the sky and turned around to head back. She paused at the fork in the path and decided to take another route back to her car. She didn’t know for sure if it was quicker, but had hiked that particular path before and felt like the way back was less rocky.
She was weaving through the trees, dodging and dunking under branches when she heard a sound.
After being in the woods for over an hour, she had gotten used to the shuffling of critters in the leaves and the wind rustling the tree branches. But this sound was different. It sounded like a soft hiss, or scrape, then as if something was being dropped onto soft earth.
She broke through some trees and her phone dinged again.
She paused and dug it out of her pocket.
Another girl has gone missing. I don’t like you being out there all alone. Come home.
Whitney sent a quick text back to Seth.
You worry too much. I got my shots and am heading back.
He answered back immediately.
She dropped her phone back into her pocket and squelched her irritation. He was trying. She needed to try as well.
She entered the next clump of trees, carefully picking her way through the path when she heard the strange noise again.
What was that sound? It seemed so out-of-place in the woods and yet, she felt like she had heard that sound before.
She veered off the path and crept toward where she thought the sound was coming from. She reached out to move a low-hanging branch only for it to swing back and slap her in the face.
“Ow!” She clapped a hand over her cheek to try and quell the sting.
The sound abruptly stopped.
Whitney also stopped and stood still. She could feel her heartbeat quickening even though she forced her breathing to slow and quiet. Something felt wrong. Why did the sound stop? A flash of lightening pierced the darkening sky above her. She counted silently in her head … 1 … 2 …3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … Thunder rolled across the sky and Whitney glanced at the time on her phone. She estimated she had about thirty minutes before the rain reached her. Though she knew she needed to move, she couldn’t. It was too quiet. Though she didn’t know what the sound was, she suddenly wished it would start back up again. She instinctively knew the sound resuming was safer than not.
She continued to stay still and she silently urged the sound to continue so she could move. She didn’t know why it was so important for the sound to resume but she was spooked enough that she didn’t feel like she should move until it did.
Her phone dinged and the sound seemed to echo loudly.
“Shit,” she reached in to her pocket and quickly muted her phone. She could hear a rustling up ahead of her and she quietly moved closer to the trees, off the path and into the shadows. She felt ridiculous for playing chicken with the mysterious sound but the goosebumps on her arms was enough to give her pause.
After long minutes, the sound started back up again and she slowly released the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.
She cautiously moved forward, careful to avoid disturbing the leaves and rocks in her way. She crept into a small batch of trees and tried to peer through.
She saw a flash of blue.
Was that a person?
She swallowed the lump of nerves in her throat and crept closer.
She crouched down and reached out a hand to carefully part the branches from the bush she was hiding behind.
She gasped with shock. A clap of thunder sounded overhead and effectively masked her gasp.
She quickly clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent any further sound from escaping.
A man, wearing a blue raincoat, was using a shovel to dig a hole.
So that was the sound. Why would he be out in the middle of the woods digging a hole?
She instinctively popped her lens cap off and lifted the camera. She timed his movements and took a picture as he was stabbing the shovel into the dirt in order to hide the camera noise. How odd. She watched him for a few moments, curious. He looked determined and sweat was dripping down his temples. He was wearing a gray ballcap flipped backward, round eyeglasses that were fogging up a bit around the edges from the surrounding condensation and his sweat. He was wearing a green/black plaid long-sleeved shirt and jeans tucked into durable, army green rain boots. A walkie talkie was snapped to his waistband. The hole was pretty big and it looked deep. Was he burying a pet? Maybe his dog had died.
She moved on her haunches as her legs were beginning to tingle and it shifted her perspective.
It was then she saw the body lying a mere ten feet from her position.
Her eyes widened in shock. She let out a squeal and fell back onto her buttocks in surprise. The bush shuddered in front of her and she winced as she cracked several twigs under her.
The digging stopped.
“Who’s there?” The man called out.
Whitney pivoted on her heel and duck-walked out of her hiding place. Once she reached the path, she began to run.
“Hey!” the man shouted and she could hear him crashing through the underbrush after her.
She yelled in alarm and began to run faster. She had no idea where she was going, she just wanted to get away.
“Hey! Come back here! Who are you?” the man said. It sounded like he was right on her heels but she was too scared to turn around and look to see how close he was.
She could hear him cursing under his breath and he used the shovel to bat away branches as he followed her off the path and into a thicket of trees.
Whitney tore the camera strap from around her neck and clasped the camera tightly in her hand. It was slapping against her chest and adding to an already painfully beating heart.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she panted under breath and she continued to sprint through the woods. All of her attention was where she was stepping as she knew, if she tripped or fell, the man would be on her in a flash and she instinctively knew he would have another body to bury.
“Bitch! You’re not getting away! I know these woods like the back of my hand. You can run, but you can’t hide!” he sing-songed and laughed manically.
Was he enjoying this??
She could feel tears of fear clouding her vision and she wiped them away impatiently. She wished Seth had not been so petulant and had come with her today.
She continued to zig-zag through the trees while dipping a hand into her pocket. She could hear the man behind her though he didn’t sound as close. She dared a peek over shoulder and though she couldn’t see him, she caught a glimpse of his blue raincoat through the foliage.
She pressed the button on her phone to bring it out of hibernation and pressed the number two to quickly dial Seth.
The phone rang once, twice …
She was starting to become winded and a stitch developed in her side.
three .. four …
“Come on Seth…” she gritted her teeth and willed him to answer.
“You’ve reached the voicemail of Seth Gardner. It’s pretty obvious I’m not available right now. You know what to do next.”
Her pace slowed a bit as she waited for the beep.
“Seth!” she huffed out. “I’m in ….OOF!”
“Got ya!” the man reached out to grab her jacket causing her to lose her balance and crash headlong into the forest floor. Her phone flew out of her hand and disappeared under a bush. She spat out some dirt as she flipped onto her back to face her attacker. She screamed.
“Ain’t no one gonna hear ya, missy,” the man leered. He raised the shovel above his head.
Whitney kicked out and made contact with his right knee. She could hear his bone crack and then a thud as he dropped his shovel.
“Son of a bitch!” the man howled in pain and went down.
Whitney scrambled away from him, got to her feet and began running. She continued to run for fifteen minutes before she forced herself to slow down and catch her breath. She wasn’t terribly out of shape but she was definitely not a marathon runner either and she was quite certain her body wouldn’t tolerate much more. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that she was having trouble catching her breath and she felt lightheaded. She paused to lean over and put her hand on her knee, her other hand still clutching the camera, to try and bring her breathing under control. It was then she remembered dropping her phone. She groaned out loud and felt like crying with frustration.
She kept still and listened.
Nothing. She could only hear the wind swirling around her. She must have lost the man.
She continued forward at a brisk pace as she felt stopping might make her vulnerable. After a while, she lost all sense of direction and was thoroughly lost.
She braced a hand against a tree trunk and worked on slowing down her heart rate. She hadn’t heard anyone behind her for quite some time so she felt fairly sure she had lost him. She looked up at the sky, which was now nearly black with angry rain clouds. As if on cue. a fat drop plopped onto her cheek.
“Well, of course it’s going to rain now,” she muttered under breath. She reached into her jacket pocket for her phone thinking she could pull up her compass app and felt nothing.
Oh yeah. She lost it.
She cringed in frustration and took a moment to look around. Everything looked the same in all directions. She knew she was far from the hiking trail and had no idea where to go next. She knew going back the way she came wasn’t an option which left three ways to go next: left, right or straight ahead. She took a few steps to the right when she smelled it.
She sniffed a few times and smiled. Wood smoke. Meaning a fireplace. At someone’s house.
Which meant help!
She lifted her nose in the air to try and determine which direction the smoke was coming from. She felt like a hound dog on a trail and under different circumstances she might have laughed, however, she was not amused, this situation was not fun and she just wanted to go home.
She continued to follow her nose and after ten minutes of walking, she came upon a log house nestled among the pine trees.
She paused before stepping into the clearing. What if this was the man’s house? Could she trust whomever was inside to help her?
A crack of thunder sounded directly above her and the heavens opened up. Rain began pelting her and she stuffed her camera under her jacket and sprinted for the door. Her options were limited. She just prayed she wasn’t walking into another crazy situation.
She stomped onto the porch and shook the rain from her hair. She must have made more noise than she meant to because a light switched on inside. Taking a calming breath, she lifted her hand and knocked on the door.
She stepped back and gauged the distance from the door to the porch steps in case she had to make another dash for it. She wasn’t usually that suspicious of people but the encounter with the man with the shovel completely changed her outlook.
After thirty seconds and the door remained firmly closed, she stepped forward and knocked again, this time a little more aggressively. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to asking a complete stranger for help but her options were limited. If the owner of the house didn’t open the door to her, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She didn’t have a phone, she didn’t know where she was and it was now pouring rain. A streak of lightening lit up the front yard followed closely by a clap of thunder so loud it made Whitney’s ears ring.
She turned to face the voice.
A man, about six feet tall, with wavy light brown hair that curled softly around his ears and dark brown, almost black, eyes stared at her in surprise. He smiled warmly at her in encouragement. A dimple appeared in his right cheek. He was quite good looking. She released a relieved breath and returned his smile.
“Hello,” she answered back. “I’m so sorry to bother you but I’m lost.” She shrugged then chuckled with self-depreciating humor. “If that doesn’t sound like a line, I don’t know what does.”
He continued to smile and nodded. “It does a bit. How in the world did you find this place? The hiking trails do not come any where close and most of my friends need a map to find me.”
“Well…” she hedged. Could she trust this man? Even now that the adrenaline had died down and she was breathing normally again, the man who chased her seemed almost a figment of her imagination. She hated to sound melodramatic and thought maybe it would be better not to mention anything about the crazy man burying a body. All she needed was help getting back to town. She would seek the police and show them the picture she took when she spoke to them. There was no sense in involving this man. Besides, she was afraid he would think she was crazy and send her on her way without helping her.
“I was looking for Cricket Falls. I’m a photographer,” she pulled her camera out from behind her to give credence to her claim. “But my friend’s directions were wrong and before long I got lost. I just happened to stumble on your cabin.”
“Don’t you have a phone?”
“I did,” she said and grimaced. “But I tripped and dropped it. I tried looking for it but then it started to rain so I gave up to try and find shelter. It’s a good thing I found your cabin!”
“Yeah. You are definitely fortunate. People die in these woods. They get lost and aren’t found for days,” he regarded her for a moment before opening the door further and gesturing for her to enter. “Come on in and get dry. I’m afraid I don’t have a phone but I can drive you to town once the rain stops.”
“You don’t have a cell phone?” she asked while stepping over the threshold.
“I do. But there’s no reception up here.”
She shivered and rubbed her arms.
“Why don’t you step over to the fireplace and warm up?” he offered.
She nodded thankfully and stepped further into the room. She reached out both hands toward the warmth emanating from the stove.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes please,” she smiled her thanks and watched him walk away from under her lashes. She shivered again but it wasn’t from the cold. Her body was reacting to the stress of the last thirty minutes. She turned her back on the man in the kitchen and switched on her camera. She activated the display and went to the last picture she took – of the man with the shovel. She got a really good picture of his face. He was scowling with concentration as he dug the shovel into the soft earth. She squinted her eyes and enlarged the lower right hand corner of the picture. She could just make out long strands of blonde hair sprawled across the grass but the girl’s face was covered by a moss-colored blanket.
A coldness prowled up her torso and she felt nauseous. She hadn’t imagined it. He was burying a body and he had chased her through the forest. She wasn’t losing her mind, it really happened. Seth’s last text message flashed across her conscience – another girl had been reported missing. Was that the girl? Did she just happen upon the man responsible for abducting three girls in the past four months?
“Here you go,” the man’s voice was right next to her ear and she startled at his close proximity, nearly dropping the camera. “What are you looking at?”
“Oh ..” she emitted a nervous laugh while taking the coffee. “Nothing. Just making sure the rain hadn’t damaged my camera. Seems to be working fine.”
“That’s a relief.” He smiled again while gesturing to the sofa. “Have a seat. My name is Dennis, by the way.”
“Hi Dennis. I’m Whitney.” She placed the camera on the coffee table in front of her and curled her body inward while she cupped the steaming mug between the palms of her hands. “I’m sorry to impose on you like this.” It felt insane that she was sitting in some stranger’s house making polite chit-chat while a killer ran loose in the woods and was liking looking for her. Would it only be a matter of time before he found this cabin? What would she say to Dennis if he knocked on the cabin door? Should she tell him the truth? Would he believe her? Would he think she was crazy and kick her out? She really needed a ride to town, she couldn’t risk it.
She sipped her coffee and offered an apologetic smile.
“Glad I was in the right place at the right time,” he answered.
“When do you think we could go into town?” She sipped again.
“Oh,” he looked out the window. “I would say it should let up in about thirty minutes. At least, that’s what the weather site said when I looked it up a while ago.”
She nodded and sat back more comfortably on the sofa. She was starting to warm up and calm down a bit. “What made you move to the middle of nowhere?”
“I like to hunt. The city just feels too enclosed, claustrophobic – I like my privacy.”
She nodded and stifled a yawn. Why did she feel so tired?
“I get that. I feel the opposite though, the woods feel sort of claustrophobic to me though I enjoy the fresh air and of course the … falls.” She stifled another yawn. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so tired.” She sat up straighter and rubbed her eyes. “You know, I really think we need to get going. My boyfriend is going to wonder what happened and …” she leaned forward to place her coffee mug on the table. Her limbs felt heavy and she was having trouble keeping her eyes open. Her mind felt fuzzy and she was having difficulty coming up with words. “Did … you …. was there …. drugged me?”
She blinked slowly and slouched over on the sofa. Every time she blinked, Dennis moved closer and closer to her so that by the time she opened her eyes the final time, he was staring directly into her face. “What are .. you …” she never finished her sentence before losing consciousness.
Dennis straightened and pulled out his walkie talkie.
“Hey dumbass. You’re never going to guess who just came knocking at our door. Give me two hours with her and then we’ll start the hunt.”