Smoke Over Owl Creek: Chapter 1
It wasn’t a baby.
Val’s head snapped up. She blinked to clear her vision, her hand limp against her book. For a heartbeat, she tried to make sense of her surroundings. The clock on the nightstand read 1:40 am, and she vaguely realized she must have just drifted off.
The bedside lamp cast long shadows against the faded wallpaper, stained and bruised from years of use. As she reached to shut it off, the thought came again.
It wasn’t a baby.
Val sat up, alert. She threw back the sheet, slipped her bare feet into a pair of flip-flops, and hurried to the door. Heart pounding, she moved down the stairs as quick as she dared, the flip-flops making a slapping sound against the aged wood. The air was sharp with the scent of smoke. Moonlight shining through a large window on the landing illuminated her way to the back of the house. The outside porch light made the small panes of stained glass in the Victorian-era door glow in tones of amber, blue, and emerald. The heavy door protested when she pulled.
A cool breeze greeted her bare arms and legs as she stepped outside; a fresh contrast to the stuffy house. With a brief glance, Val took in the yard, her eyes drawn to the shadows under the trees. Keeping one eye on the darkness, she ran to the lump on the trampoline.
Abby's hair was just visible above the blankets, the rest of her burrowed deep for warmth.
Val stroked the thin blonde curls.
“Hey, sweetie,” she murmured. “Let’s go inside.”
If Abby were smaller, Val could have scooped her up in her arms and carried her to the house. But she was seven now, and big enough that Val wouldn’t have made it more than a few steps.
“Come on, baby. I need you to wake up. I want you to sleep in the house tonight.”
With gentle prodding, Abby finally stirred. “You said I could sleep on the trampoline,” she accused, her words slurred with sleep.
“I know, but I changed my mind. I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Val looked back toward the shadows where the line of trees marked the rise of the mountain behind the house.
Earlier that day, while Abby had been playing on the rusty swing set, Val had been indoors packing away some of her parents’ old stuff to make room for the boxes she and Abby brought with them when they moved in. The rhythmic squeal of the swing set chain was a soothing accompaniment to the childhood memories reawakened by each book, each card, each photo she unearthed.
At some point in the afternoon, she’d heard the distant sound of a wailing baby drifting over the dry fields. The Parkers lived down the hill and across the road, and in the full foliage of summer, she could barely make out the roof of their barn through the trees. She’d assumed they had family visiting with children and hadn’t thought anything of it.
Until in her sleep, she remembered the Parkers were out of town.
Yet there was something else that could sound hauntingly like a screaming child.
Would she know if a cougar watched her now? She felt a chill on her neck at the thought. Keeping an eye on the dark line of trees at the edge of the yard, Val shushed Abby's protests and helped her down from the trampoline. When her feet hit the dry grass, Abby yelped.
“I’ve got a sticker in my foot.”
“We’ll fix it in the house.”
“But it really hurts.”
“Let’s get inside first.”
Her arms full of blankets, Val helped Abby hobble across the yard, supporting her daughter’s weight. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching her from the shadows. But the light from the porch blinded her to the darkness under the trees. The yard seemed so much bigger in the dark, the safety of the house far away.
She restrained a sigh of relief when they reached the porch. The old door squealed against the frame as she pushed it open. It stuck worse now than it used to.
She turned around as she closed the door, taking one last look at the yard. There, under the distant trees, she saw a faint patch of…something.
She blinked, her eyes straining.
There was a smudge of something not-quite-shadow. As she watched, it dissolved into the darkness.
* * *
A gust of wind sent a fast food bag skittering across the ground as Joel parked next to Larry’s police-issue Yukon. Everywhere he looked was brown. The hard-packed earth that served as a parking lot behind the elementary school. The dry grass in the baseball field bordering the chain link fence. The dirty tents sprouting side by side across the playground. Even the air was tinged with a brown haze from the surrounding forest fires. The world had curled in on itself under the heat of an unrelenting sun like the last gasp of summer before the rains of September.
But it was only July. There was still a lot of summer left.
The sun baked Joel’s forehead as he stepped out of his unmarked Charger and he wished for a hat. His eyes itched. Something in the air was stirring up his allergies, and he guessed it wouldn’t get better until the weather shifted. He followed the trail through the tents, passing a food cart with a line of dirty, exhausted men and women who still managed to tease and smile at one another through their weariness. Most of the faces here were unfamiliar, firefighters who’d been brought in from all over the West. But on occasion someone nodded his direction or offered a wave.
Larry was waiting for him just inside the play shed, a large covered structure that allowed school recess to continue through the rainy winters. Even without the brown deputy uniform he would have stood out in this crowd just by having shaved that morning. He stood near a little gray pup tent and greeted Joel with a nod.
Joel frowned at the number of tents crowded in the shade of the structure. “Not a lot of breathing room here, I guess.”
“They say you can tell who got Taco Bell versus Burger King based on the smell of your neighbors’ farts.”
“Nice.” Joel grimaced as he pulled on a set of gloves. “Tell me about our missing person.”
“Samuel Howser. White. Fifty-seven. His wallet and personals were all left behind.”
Joel ducked into the small gray tent. The air was thick with the scent of unwashed man and campfire smoke. A black sleeping bag lay rumpled in the middle of the floor. In one corner, a worn duffle bag spilled clothes onto the floor. Joel spotted a pair of jeans with one leg inside out, a long-sleeved denim shirt, thick hiking socks, and pair of plaid boxer shorts.
A backpack lay near the door, and Joel reached for it. Wallet. Keys. Phone. A switchblade knife. A prescription bottle. Toothbrush and stick of deodorant. Another pair of crusty socks and a pocket-sized notebook with a pen sticking through the spiral binding.
Joel removed the pen and flipped through the notebook. It contained a few rough sketches and text scrawled in tiny script. Almost like a comic book, but completely unskilled. The last page held a drawing of a round symbol with some kind of swooping shape inside it.
“This mean anything to you?” he asked, showing the page to Larry who crouched in the doorway.
Joel dropped the notebook and reached for the wallet, pulling out the license. Samuel Howser looked older than fifty-seven. His gray hair was slicked back, and heavy pouches bulged under his eyes. His pronounced cheekbones made him look gaunt and undernourished.
“How about his boots?”
“They’re gone. Just these sneakers here.”
Choosing boots over sneakers might not be significant, but if Joel had been a firefighter headed downtown, he would have picked the sneakers.
He also would have brought his wallet. Joel lifted it and thumbed through the contents, counting less than forty dollars in cash.
“His license says he’s from Pineview,” he said, emerging from the tent. “Better see if that’s current.”
“I’ve got a call in to the station there.”
“And the guy who reported him missing?”
“Thomas Morrison. I told him to stay close.” Larry gestured to a beefy man in short sleeves standing not far away. The man straightened as Joel walked over.
“You’re the one who reported Samuel Howser missing?” Joel asked, shaking his hand. It nearly swallowed Joel’s and was rough with callouses. He smelled of smoke and sweat and tobacco.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“And your name?”
“Tom. Uh, Thomas Morrison.” He pulled at his coarse beard, eyeing Joel’s notepad.
“How do you know Mr. Howser?”
“We’re on the same crew. My tent’s this one right here.” He gestured to the blue tent next to Howser’s.
“Are you friends?”
Tom shrugged. “Sam’s all right.”
“What make’s you think something’s happened to him?”
Tom blew out a stale breath. “Sam has his habits. Always has to do things a certain way. Eats the same thing every day. Always the first one up. It’s not like him to just up and disappear during the night.”
“Tell me about the last time you saw him.”
Tom described coming off a 24-hour shift the previous day and going to dinner with friends at McGowan’s, the only restaurant in town. He couldn’t say how Howser had spent the evening and when he’d come back, Howser’s tent was dark.
“I thought he’d just crashed hard, you know? It wasn’t until Sam didn’t get up in the morning that I realized he was missing,” Tom finished. “Bruce didn’t know where he was either. That ain’t like Sam. He’s a rule follower. Wouldn’t have left without making sure he checked in.”
“Our crew chief.”
“Thank you, Mr. Morrison. Can I get your number in case I have more questions?” As Joel wrote down Tom’s phone number, Larry approached with a man wearing a Portland Trailblazers hat.
“This is Bruce Johnson, Howser’s crew chief,” Larry said, his face flushed in the heat.
Joel didn’t know how these firefighters could stand it. His own dress shirt clung to his back and sweat trickled down his temple behind his sunglasses.
“How can I help?” Bruce adjusted his cap, exposing dark underarm stains. His eyes were earnest but he didn’t have much to add to Tom’s story. The camp had been searched that morning with no sign of Howser. It seemed that Tom was the last person who’d seen him the previous night.
When Joel asked if Howser had any friends in camp, Bruce shook his head.
“Sam doesn’t really hang with the rest of the crew. He keeps to himself, just him and his art.”
“Sketches, drawings, whatever he’s doing in that notebook. I don’t think he likes people all that much. He’ll get mad if the guys get too loud and is always kind of jumpy. Reminds me of my wife when she quit smoking. It’s too bad. Maybe if he had a friend or two we’d know where he is and wouldn’t have had to call you.”
“Anyone in particular who doesn’t like him?”
Bruce tugged at his cap. His face was lined and dirt had settled into the grooves around his eyes. “I mean…not like you’re saying. He’s a great worker and doesn’t cause trouble. But he’s the kind of guy who would have been picked last in PE when he was a kid, you know? No one minds him much, but they also don’t go out of their way to be his friend.”
“How about Tom Morrison? Does he get along with Sam?”
Tom was talking to a woman with thick curly hair pulled into a ponytail. She was talking animatedly, but Tom didn’t seem to be paying much attention. Instead, he kept glancing over at Joel and Bruce.
Bruce followed Joel’s gaze. “They get along fine, I guess. As well as anybody. Sam likes his peace and quiet, so he and Tom may have exchanged a few words once or twice about that.”
“Nah. Just needed to sort things out, you know? It can be tough being in each other’s space day in and day out. But Tom’s a good guy. He would watch out for any member of this crew.”
Joel wondered if Bruce meant to imply an unspoken “even Sam,” but didn’t say so. Bruce was trying so hard to convince Joel that Sam wasn’t an outcast that it only cemented Joel’s impression that he was.
Visiting with the other members of the crew didn’t change that. None of them had seen or heard from Sam during the night, and most of them didn’t care.
“You’re wasting your time, Detective. He’s probably just sleeping off a hangover somewhere.”
Joel hoped it was something that simple, but it was hard to get drunk without a wallet unless Sam had taken some cash with him when he left. He gave Bruce his number in case Howser wandered into camp later that day and headed for his parked car. Someone was there waiting for him, leaning against the driver’s side door.
It took a minute before he recognized Carter Millston under the baseball cap and sunglasses.
“Slow news day?”
“Apparently not.” Carter grinned and rubbed the soul patch on his chin. “You wanna tell me what’s going on?”
“What in our history together makes you think I’d do that?” Joel asked, but he smiled as he said it. Though Joel generally had little patience for reporters, his friendship with Carter went back a long way. Friends through high school, they’d shared lunch breaks at Stan’s Market and traded bruises on the football field.
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Carter said casually. “Firefighter brawl? Jealous lovers’ quarrel?”
“Possible missing person.”
“Really?” Carter straightened. “Who?”
“It may turn out to be nothing. I’ll give you a call if we need your help.”
“I’m here to serve,” Carter said with a mock salute. As a journalist, Carter was respectful and conscientious in his work. Better yet, he knew how to be discreet. Joel knew that from experience.
“I saw your piece on the news last night,” Joel said. “You spend a lot of time hanging around here?”
Carter’s eyes darted past Joel’s black Charger to the SUV with the Wallace County Sheriff’s Office shield printed on the side. “I was driving past and thought I’d check things out. Crazy how a small city can pop up almost overnight. Just the laundry alone is a massive logistical undertaking.”
Joel nodded absentmindedly. He’d seen Carter’s story about the fire camp and didn’t need a recap. “Well, like I said, I’ll call you if this turns into something.” He brushed past him and reached for the door.
“Did you hear Valerie’s back?”
Joel turned and squinted at him. “No kidding?”
“I guess you two aren’t in touch, then.”
The way he said it slid under Joel’s skin like an itch.
Joel kept his tone neutral. “Nope. Haven’t seen her since her dad’s funeral. Do you know why she’s here?”
“I guess she lost her husband a while back. Now she’s taking care of the place, getting it ready to sell.”
“That’ll be hard in this market.”
Carter grunted, and after the obligatory pause to acknowledge the struggling economy in the shrinking timber town, Joel got in his car. As he drove away—the air conditioning blasting his face—Joel wondered if Carter was a busybody because he was a reporter or if it was the other way around. Chicken or egg?
Either way, it could be downright annoying.
* * *
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