Audrey told Nathan she was going to check out the forest because the last time she hid her plans about a case from him, she wound up trapped on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. She told no one else—made a point, in fact, of telling Nathan she could handle it herself. Nonetheless, the only part of seeing Duke leaning against her car when she came out at sunrise with a fistful of hiking maps that surprised her was that it was Duke.
"What," she asked, walking around him to dump the maps on the passenger seat, "did one of your contacts give you a top secret police cell phone tapper?"
Duke raised his eyebrows. "Wow, that sounded almost like Nathan. Are you sure you two haven't switched personalities? Because I'm not used to getting my heads-up from him, either."
Audrey shoved the door closed. "Just keeping the natural balance."
"Speaking of natural, are you really sure you want to go hiking in those?" He cast a dubious glance at her feet, clad in sensible sneakers because Audrey Parker did a lot more jogging than hiking through the woods. She didn't know about Lucy Ripley, but, then, she didn't have Lucy Ripley's clothes.
"I'll be fine," Audrey snapped. "Better these than the hiking boots I don't own."
Duke raised his arms in surrender. "Just asking." He shrugged a bag off his shoulders and slung it in the back. "So, we're leaving now. Don't suppose I can convince you to take my truck? It'll probably handle the roads better."
Audrey sighed. "Look, Duke, what did Nathan tell you I was doing? Because I'm just going to be talking to a bunch of antisocial old men of the type that generally don't like you."
"Look, Audrey," Duke mocked, "did Nathan tell you how long I've lived in this town? I've got more experience than you do with the kinds of people who don't like me." He braced his arms on the car's hood to give her a challenging look. "And since you're my best ticket at this point to stopping whoever wants to kill me, I'm good with a few awkward stares."
She glared, to no effect whatsoever. "Fine," she said. "Get in the car." When Duke—remarkably—obeyed without commentary, she pointedly started the engine and flipped the radio on just for the white noise. He took the hint.
She lasted for about five minutes.
"Sorry to snap at you." She didn't take her eyes off the road.
Audrey could see his grin out of the corner of her eye. "Now there's the Audrey I know and love," he said cheerfully. She smiled tightly, but it was the first real smile she'd felt in a while. "How've you been?" His voice went a little odd. "It seems like the only person you talk to anymore is Nathan."
Audrey thought about contradicting him, arguing that she talked to people every time Haven residents suffered so much as a fender-bender, but that wasn't really what he was saying. "Nathan's father had answers we both needed, and he died before he gave them to us. We're just trying to figure out who among the many people hiding things in this town is hiding the ones we need." She studied the fields out the window and the trees in the distance. Maybe twenty more minutes of driving, she estimated, and then she'd have to start being careful with the car. "I'm not trying to block you out, honestly."
"Do I have to like it?" Duke asked again. Audrey frowned.
"This time, no," she answered finally. She risked a quick look sideways, only to see Duke staring out the window. "There are so many people who obviously don't want me here now that it's hard to sort out who feels that way because of the Troubles and who's playing politics with the Rev, and who's doing it because of the new Agent Parker." Her voice cracked a little on the words, but they'd come out intelligibly, at least.
Intelligibly enough. Duke still didn't say anything.
"And I have the feeling even the people who want me here don't want to give me the whole story. Vince and Dave are hiding something, and I don't have the energy to pin them down and make them talk when I don't even know what to make them talk about—"
Duke broke in abruptly. "Julia showed me an entire graveyard of people with the tattoo on their tombstones," he said. "I don't know what connects them all, but you were right about chasing the tattoo rather than the person."
Audrey nearly slammed on the breaks, and only the fact that she didn't feel like fishtailing after hitting Duke's head back into his seat stopped her. "Don't tell me you don't have a list of the names in that graveyard. Why haven't you given it to me?"
"I haven't talked to you since I found out, except for one delightful five minute conversation when you told me that you had a doppelganger in town and wanted me to know before she had it announced to the world, then hung up before I got out anything more than 'hello'." There wasn't much room for physicality in her little sedan, but Audrey had the feeling that if he could have reached out and shaken her, Duke would have.
She grimaced. "I did, didn't I. Sorry." She waited a beat. "Did you tell Nathan?"
"Nathan and I still don't talk willingly," he reminded her. "For anything more than immediate problems," he added hastily as she opened her mouth.
She half smiled. "So what was the immediate problem while you guys were drinking beer and counting money?"
"Okay, that was a lie. But, no, I haven't given it to him."
"You probably should as soon as we get back. I'm not sure how long Nathan can keep hold of the sheriff's office, and we'll want to check it against criminal records at least."
There wasn't a lot Duke could say to that, and Audrey was tempted to apologize again, but he knew—or should know, at least—that the frustration wasn't directed at him. Was really on his behalf at least in part. She heard understanding in his casual "Sure" and let the car lapse into silence. It wasn't as uncomfortable as it could have been.
At the first cabin, Audrey was treated to an old hunter's long lecture about how the state was stifling natural frontier behavior with its strict hunting laws. At the second cabin, she got tag-teamed by an old couple who wanted to tell her all of the ways that the federal government wasn't doing enough with its wishy-washy regulation to protect the natural environment. Both times Duke wisely stayed in the car, within screaming distance but out of scolding distance. Audrey wasn't entirely sure she wanted to get to the third cabin, even as she trudged along the backwoods path that only a rough-terrain motorcycle could possibly use.
"I can't believe he gets supplies to this place using a motorcycle," she muttered. "A motorcycle. Why has no one put in a road?"
"After the lecture the Allens just gave you, Audrey?" Duke said behind her. "For shame."
The scenery was gorgeous in the very Maine coast way that she was still getting used to, with a bewildering variety of colorful leaves jumbled together on the ground and clinging to the tree branches, and an equal variety of barks. The grey and papery birches stood out vibrantly against the darker, grooved sides of the surrounding maples, oaks, and who knew what else. It was beautiful, but it was getting old fast. "There should be a road," Audrey said crossly. "Doesn't mean anyone has to use it."
Duke's laughter was cheering. "So how likely is it that this last guy has any information you can use? We haven't had much luck so far."
"It's," Audrey checked her watch, "barely after eleven o'clock. We have plenty of time. Don't you know by now that the most awkward location is always the one with the answers?"
"No. I've learned by now that the most awkward location always holds the Troubled person trying to kill us," Duke replied as he sped up enough to walk beside her on the slightly widened path. "Really. We're looking for information about someone who may be making treated wood come alive and stab people, and we're looking for him in woods that are part of Haven's township, and we're planning to walk for a completely defenseless hour through those woods. What part of this strikes you as smart?"
"Two hours, actually," Audrey said pleasantly. "There and back. And only the worked wood has ever come alive; no trees or saplings trying to kill anyone." Her phone saved her from the stormclouds gathering on Duke's face.
She snapped it open. "Anything new?"
Nathan's voice came across the line, scratchy and crackly with bad reception. "Word on the last of the wood just came in, and it looks like it's all from that area and all from within the last twenty-seven years."
"Since the last set of Troubles." Audrey could practically feel his nod. Duke was standing impatiently to the side, obviously trying to listen in. "Anything on who carved it?"
"Got two carvers for the fine stuff, and a third handy-man who built the porch. Haven't talked to either carver yet; I'm going to talk to them after I hang up. But the handy-man got his lumber from Thomas Cooper."
"That's who we're going to see now." Audrey shook her head at Duke when he made a face.
"Are you sure you don't want to come out and go back in with backup?" Nathan asked. "We can go back tomorrow together."
Audrey huffed a sigh at him. "We're this far in, and I wouldn't forgive myself if someone else died while we procrastinated."
Nathan persisted. "I can drive over there. It would take me a hour to get to where you are now."
Audrey shook her head, even though she knew he couldn't see it. "We'll be fine," she said.
Nathan sighed loudly enough to be heard through the static. "Take care of yourself," he said. "And tell Duke that if he comes back without you I'm punching a hole in his boat myself."
Audrey winced and held the phone away from her ear a bit as Nathan raised his voice on that last, then winced again when Duke shouted back, "Hey, she wants to tramp through Cooper's woods."
Audrey brought the phone to her ear again, briefly. "Good luck interviewing the artists; we'll tell you if we find anything. Bye!" She closed the phone. "Thanks for breaking my eardrums."
Duke shrugged. "I want my boat to be there when I get back."
Audrey shook a coating of fallen leaves off her jacket and started forward again, brushing away their crumbly residue. "Come on. Sooner we get there, sooner we can leave."
Duke raked fingers through his hair and grimaced at the fistful of leaves that came out, but he followed. "The leaves here stink."
Audrey ignored him in favor of putting one foot in front of the other. Twenty minutes later by her clock and about two hours later by the ache in her legs, her phone beeped. She grimaced. "Lost service."
"Of course," Duke muttered. "Only thing that could make this even more of an adventure. Why the hell am I here anyway?"
Audrey breathed deeply. Duke was right, the air did smell, and not the clean way the woods outside Tracy's home smelled. It didn't smell like road kill, either, though, which was the only thing that kept her from agreeing to turn back around. It was almost flowery, but heavier, heavy enough to make her sneeze. "Nathan did something to make you behave like a gentleman?" she suggested when she'd caught her breath.
"Nathan has no illusions that I am any kind of gentleman," Duke shot back. Audrey reached to the side and thwapped him without looking. "Ow."
"You earned it."
Duke kicked up a pile of leaves by the side of the trail, exposing a sleeping chipmunk that promptly scampered off into the forest. "He said it."
Audrey replied without thinking. "Then he gets smacked when we get back to Haven." She sneezed again.
Duke made a face at her. "He won't feel it."
"Yes he will."
Before Duke could say anything, the sharp fall of an acorn made them both jump. It was swiftly followed by two squirrels that raced madly through the leafy piles about the trees. One had another acorn clamped firmly between its teeth, but the other chittered as it gave chase. Audrey jumped again when a third squirrel hit the ground heavily, but it picked itself up to weave vaguely after its fellows.
Duke frowned. "That squirrel looks drunk."
Audrey snickered, and the air felt a little lighter. "Thanks." Duke was quiet, still frowning. "That was a joke, right? Nothing to worry about?"
Duke shook his head. "Nothing," he said shortly, but he still looked miles distant. Audrey waved a hand in front of his face that he batted away. "Nathan can feel you?"
Oh. She thought back to what she'd said, considered trying to prevaricate, and then finally shrugged it off. "One of the side benefits of being Lucy Ripley."
"Oh." Duke still sounded a little weird, but he kept walking, and considering that they should be only about fifteen minutes from the cabin, that was probably the best plan. The sooner they questioned Thomas Cooper, the sooner they could leave, and as she shook a fresh coating of dead leaves off her head and jacket, Audrey really couldn't think of anything she wanted to do more.
They walked in silence. The tree cover was thin enough that the sun shone through relatively clearly, changing minutely as the treetops shifted. In the silence, she could hear the occasional thump of falling acorns (or maybe squirrels), and the calls of birds. She imagined that they sounded as congested as she did, in this forest of heavy smells.
The movement of the air along the path might have changed a little when Duke finally spoke again, but Audrey was a little too distracted to concentrate on it. "We made out in the bathroom once," he told her, apropos of nothing, "in high school."
Audrey stared at him. "After you stuck tacks in his back?"
Duke's shoulders went up defensively, and he turned back to the path, grinding a few more red and gold leaves underfoot. "One, that was when we were eight. It had been a few years. Two, I didn't say we liked each other much. And, three, when did he tell you about that?"
Audrey tried to ignore that statement for her own peace of mind. She really did. She peered at the trees around her, tried harder to identify anything that seemed out of place, but the riot of fall colors made that almost pointless. It was perfectly natural for this forest to have red, orange, yellow, and mahogany leaves all tangled together in the same section of trees, and she was nowhere near enough of a specialist to identify leaves of the wrong shape or whatever else people used to tell these things. "So you didn't like each other and you just happened to find yourselves making out in the school bathroom." She wished she had managed to sound a bit more incredulous.
"Yes." Duke's expression said very clearly that he had no idea why he'd told her and he had no intention of saying any more. They finally broke into the cabin's clearing before she could decide whether she wanted to fight him for it.
It was not a cabin. Audrey stared at the…house, for lack of a better word, and felt a little dizzy. The logs twined together in what was either a very clever carving job or a use of Troubled power. They looked like they had grown there in a building two stories high, surrounding a stone fireplace and chimney that were the only normal looking thing about the place. Branches like reaching arms twined in delicate frames around window glass, and more reaching arms twined together into a balcony that looked like it belonged on a dollhouse.
"That's impressive," Duke said, and grabbed her hand to tug, awkwardness forgotten. "And I don't trust it. Can we go now?"
Audrey pulled away. "Hang on." She walked forward. "Mr. Cooper?" she called. "Haven PD. We just want to talk to you for a moment."
A slight man with a shock of grey hair stepped out onto the balcony. It looked terrifyingly unstable, but it held him. "What do you want?" he yelled down at her.
"I just want to talk to you about the wood that you provided to a few people in Haven. Lorraine Hennessy, Lucas Handsman, and Matthew Anderson, Mr. Cooper. They all purchased wood from you."
"So what?" Cooper demanded. He was twitchy, pacing the edges of the tiny balcony, running his hands along its railing.
"Their products recently warped and deformed in ways that killed the owners," Audrey continued steadily. "I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on that."
"Why do you care? They got what they deserved, didn't they." Cooper was rubbing faster now, hands scouring the wood almost frantically.
"We need to make sure there are no more deaths," Audrey said, stubborn and calm despite Duke's hiss to be quiet behind her.
Her answer was a whip of wood that lashed out from the side of the house. She dodged it, barely, and pulled her gun. The other side of the house rippled, and Cooper's balcony shook.
"Mr. Cooper," she shouted. "Your house is going to collapse ar—" She broke off when a second whip joined the first and managed to slash a thin red line across her arm before she could dance away.
She gasped a little when Duke yanked her back out of the clearing and behind a thick tree. "We are so dead," he growled in her ear. "Unless you are an excellent shot while dodging killer trees."
The tremble in her arms agreed with him, but something didn't feel right. "No, wait. None of the trees are doing anything. He can only shape cut wood. Probably only wood that he's cut himself." A little more strength tricked into her muscles, and she shook off Duke's arm.
"Great," Duke snapped. "Congratulations. Only the cut wood can grow spikes and kill us, but he's still doing something to these trees, because a normal forest doesn't shed leaves this fast, and I don't normally get drunk off the smell of dead plant matter."
She shot a look at him. His eyes were wide and hazy, pupils blown in a way that didn't look right for fear. Then he slumped to the ground and rather conclusively proved his point. Rage running cold through her veins and making her arms steady as iron bars, Audrey stepped out from behind the tree.
"Enough." She pointed squarely to the right of Cooper and squeezed off a shot. "That was your warning," she shouted, but Cooper didn't seem to hear her. The wood behind him was rippling crazily, as if he were trying to get the entire thing to move forward and attack. The balcony lurched in a way that made her heart jump.
Then it folded in on itself, and Cooper screamed, high-pitched and horrifying, as the railing unwound from its delicate twist and stabbed through his torso. The tip of the wood reappeared, bloody, above his right shoulder, even as redness stained the shirt around his stomach. The house convulsed again and froze, Cooper pinned at the top like a gruesome trophy.
Audrey clicked the safety on her gun, then bent over, gasping for breath. The air seemed somehow clearer, but her vision doubled and she fell hard on her side. Apparently, her strange immunity to whatever had knocked Duke out was deserting her. She dropped the gun to tug out her phone. Out of Service. Her world went black.
Audrey woke to a splitting headache and someone shaking her shoulders. She blinked painfully. "Nathan?"
"About time." Nathan pulled her up to a sitting position to hug her tightly, and Audrey relaxed into him, closing her eyes against the aching brightness.
"I haven't gotten drunk throughout this entire mess because I didn't want the hangover," she grumbled into his chest. "And now I get the hangover without the drunk."
Nathan's shoulders shook and she could feel a huff of a laugh against the nape of her neck. She shivered. "You're okay," he said.
Audrey forced herself to pull back and sit under her own power. "I'm fine. How's Duke? The leaves hit him harder."
"He's still breathing," Nathan said, walking over to where Duke was passed out beside a birch tree. The ground around him was cleared of the stifling leaves. Nathan poked him in the shoulder to no effect, and Audrey dragged herself over to help. "Come on, Duke," Nathan said as Audrey reached out to shake him properly. "Don't tell me you've never gone on a bender before."
Duke's eyes slid halfway open. "I do my benders safely at home where I can sleep them off," he muttered, and then his eyes slipped closed again. Nathan's hand moved to check his pulse before Audrey could react.
"Still alive. Just lazy."
Audrey grinned. It made her head pound even more, but it still felt good. "Guess it's up to us to get him home." She looked around. "How did you get here anyway?"
"Borrowed Vince's motorcycle. Apparently, he 'was wild in his twenties'." Nathan waved a hand behind him, and Audrey spotted a Honda dirt-bike behind him.
"A Honda," she said, deadpan. "Wild." She saw the smile in Nathan's eyes.
He bent down to lift Duke with a grunt into a fireman's carry. "I'm going to put him on the bike, and the two of us can keep it upright while we walk out of here. It'll take a while, but…"
Audrey nodded and swallowed a yawn. "Got it," she mumbled, and followed Nathan. They got Duke settled securely onto the seat, Nathan checked to make sure the bike was in neutral, and they were off.
"Was he just attacking people at random, then?" Audrey asked after a few minutes of quiet, most of her attention on supporting her side of the bike. "Cooper was pretty far gone by the time we got here."
Nathan shook his head. "Not quite that far. One of the two state senate hopefuls was trying to get the laws on logging in the area tightened enough that Cooper wouldn't have been able to continue working. The other one wanted to use public domain to take away land in the area that wasn't being 'exploited properly'."
Audrey sighed. "Let me guess; the realtor wanted to build something on it?"
She stared forward. "There's another one I couldn't save."
Nathan's hand moved to cover hers, steady on Duke's back. He looked at her. "He was killing people, Audrey. He sent threatening letters to both politicians; none of it was spur of the moment. Then he was trying to kill you. We'll send a medical examination team out there to deal with the body, but none of it is your fault."
She managed a smile for him. "Thank you."
He looked like he wanted to say more, but then sighed and was quiet. The rest of the walk passed in a warm silence. The birds began singing again, less strange-sounding than they'd been before, and the squirrels and chipmunks scampered up and down trees, with more scrabbling claws and fewer bizarre thumps. The forest was finding its way back to health again quickly, even if Audrey was too tired and wrung out to enjoy it properly.
They reached the truck before she was quite ready to collapse and drew the motorcycle up beside the passenger door. "Help me get Duke in the truck, and I'll shove the bike in the back. We can come back for your car tomorrow." Audrey nodded and couldn't hold back the yawn. She tugged open the door and slid inside, scooting over to pull Duke in as Nathan pushed from the other side. Finally, they had him settled on the seat without ever waking up. Nathan pushed the door shut. Audrey let Duke slump against the passenger window while she got out the other side to help Nathan get the motorcycle in.
"You're not lifting that thing alone," she warned. "It's a light bike, but not that light."
Nathan acquiesced silently, only mouthing a count of one-two-three before they hefted it up and into the back. Nathan secured it with bungee cords that looked incongruously bright. Yellow, hot pink, and neon green. She snickered.
"Come on, rescuee." Nathan pushed at her shoulder. "It's time to get in the car."
Audrey got in from the driver's side this time, and squeezed herself over beside Duke to let Nathan in. The front and center seat was really only meant for a child, and only for short distances, but after the day she'd had, it felt comforting. She let her head fall over onto Nathan's shoulder as he started the truck. He didn't object.
"Oh, right," she said without picking her head up. "Something I wanted to ask you."
"Hmm?" Nathan murmured, most of his attention obviously on the narrow road. He'd come further up it than she had been willing to that morning.
"Did you really make out with Duke in the high school bathroom?" Audrey twisted her head back to watch in fascination as Nathan's cheeks went pink.
"I was not making the best life choices then," he muttered.
She smiled, warm and comfortable, and watched Nathan drive through a rough patch on the left side of the road in order to avoid potholes that might have jogged the passenger's side. "I see," she said, and felt Nathan's smile when he dropped a light kiss on her forehead.
-The End-blog comments powered by Disqus