The Sunny Side Up stunk of french fries and menu mildew. Early risers filled the rustic diner with hikers eager for hotcakes, cheese grits and the Bravocado special. A pair of veteran waitresses sped amid tables, checking the wall clock between orders. In an hour the seats would be empty. This was the last place to get a bite before driving into the Hitchiti nature park to hike, fish or play. Ian and April sat at a corner booth, its slashed cushions spewing stuffing.
“Everyone is capable of something horrible,” Ian suggested. “given certain circumstances. It’s far more practical to think that a desperate con on the loose did this then, well, I’m not going to even say it.”
April shrugged. It wasn’t that she disagreed with Ian as much as she wanted to wilder his pragmatic outlook on, well, everything. In their five years as partners, she’d never once been able to coax the old park ranger into indulging implausible ideas. April remembered the stories her grandmother told her. The Muskogean feared something in these woods, and it wasn’t until last week’s homicide that April recalled the childhood tales.
“I’m not arguing intent,” April asserted after sipping burnt coffee. “I want to know how someone got the remains so damn high? Do you know how strong you’d have to be to get a body in a tree? Like, really strong.”
Ian shook his head, a half-smirk curled along his lips. His peppered hair was mostly gray and a heavy crease cut into his forehead. He hesitated, waiting for the approaching waitress to serve breakfast. He stabbed at his banana oatmeal with a spoon once it landed and waited until the waitress withdrew before continuing their conversation.
“You think Bigfoot did it?” he taunted, brows knitted together.
“I think I’ve met safe doors less stubborn than you.”
“That’s a compliment in my books” he bragged, stealing a piece of April’s bacon. “Tolerance for the absurd is reserved for preschool teachers and writers.”
April rolled her eyes. “Some people just can’t see the truth.” She shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth, chewing as she stared out of the glass window separating them from the parking lot. Every so often the nature preserve would suffer a hiking injury, brush fire or snake bite, but nothing like this. Since the incident, federal authorities had pressured April’s small department for resolution, sending in experts in to help. When there wasn’t a lick of evidence, they blamed Hank Wadley, the convicted murder that escaped from state prison three weeks ago. There was no proof he was in the area, but the rangers were urged to lift every stone.
Ian and April sat silently while they ate their food. When the check came, Ian stole the bill, handing the waitress his card. April feigned a grudge before thanking him.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Ian grunted. “I’m buttering you up.”
“I was thinking we’d go north today and check out that old architect site atop the summit. It’ll be a bit of a walk.”
“You bring your boots?”
“They’re in the trunk.”
“Good. Think of it this way, you’ll be fit as a lion for your wedding.”
“You wearing a dress?”
“No, she is.”
“Can’t you both?”
April’s eyes bored through Ian. “No.”
“Well,” Ian nodded to the returned waitress, signing the check, “you’ll look like a million bucks no matter what you’re wearing after today.”
“Maybe I’ll wear my uniform?”
The pair exchanged stares before the dam came loose and they burst into laughter.
It was nearly eight o’clock when the rangers made it to their patroller. The off-road vehicle was due for a tune-up and sputtered as it climbed up the peak. April glanced at herself from the passenger mirror. Her black hair braided into a tight bun, highlighting her windburn. Her eyes bruised from lack of sleep and were framed by crow’s feet. April thought she looked older than she should for thirty.
The ride took nearly twenty minutes. Ian parked the patroller off of Patron’s Peak. They exited the car, staring at the canvas of pines clinging along the cliffside. Most visitors would be in awe, but the recent homicide had a way of garnishing the woods with grave flowers. Ian straightened his back, stretched and then crowned himself with his mountie’s hat. He checked his sidearm before peeking at April’s holster.
“You clean it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Did it last night. Rebecca hates guns, so I had to go outside. I’m like seventy-percent sure it has all of its parts.”
“Come on then, smart ass.”
April hated guns as much as her fiancé, but she’d never admit it. It seemed like you were required to pepper your eggs with gunpowder if you were in law enforcement, even if you were just a park ranger. For her, the pistol meant that should she be presented with a situation that required it, she’d be forced to decide if her life was more important than someone else’s. Her Grandma didn’t raise April that way. Every earthly guest had their place. You should treat, not shoot, a broken man.
The brush was thick and the path emaciated. April began to sweat early into their trek. The pair huffed up the cliffside until it thinned into a game trail. Branches clawed at the rangers, trying to pierce through their sturdy coats. April spotted cougar scat and pointed it out to Ian. He flipped his holster’s safety clasp in case he needed to arm himself in a hurry. The deer were thin in the area, and cougars weren’t against making exceptions to their diet. Still, the rangers pushed on, not taking a break until the white noise of Bloodstone Falls greeted them.
The red clay clinging to the waterfall’s crevices bled scarlet into the basin. It was iron oxide that gave the soil its hue, but the First People saw it as a curse. This is where the ancient ones buried the dead, and archeologists found cave drawings to prove it. To this day the Muskogean forbid travel near the cliffs. April separated herself from the old ways as a teen but recognized the sacredness that came with the haunting falls. She took in the landscape, studying the curves and color. As she did, something caught her eye near the fountain pool.
April took a closer look. There were dull scars weathered from years of erosion. Still, April could make out the outline of crudely etched men, birds and stags in a dark ink. Alongside a depiction of oaks stood a lone man as tall as the trees. April didn’t know if it were just her imagination, but she wouldn’t let that stop her from using the cave art as an argument.
“Ian,” April called out, “now you have to believe me.” She froze when her eyes met his. Ian was crouched near the carved rapids ten steps, two logs and a boulder away. His nostrils flared as he stared near the waterline. “What’s wrong?”
Ian waved April over. She trudged the distance and peered over his shoulder. Ian used a stick to fish out a severed human finger from a rock pit, its fingernail caked with dirt. April thought it might be a gag item until she spotted muscle and bone. She swallowed the spur in her throat.
“Shit,” she sputtered. “Think there was an accident?”
“Up here?” Ian huffed as he rolled the thumb onto the mud. “Nah. Anything called in?”
April reached for her belt radio, pressing the plastic button. “Patrol to dispatch.”
The crackling of a static laced voice replied. “Go for dispatch.”
“This is Officer Red Wolf,” she confirmed, her voice calm and steady. “We’re on the site of a possible crime scene. Finger found. Any reports of injuries near the summit?”
“That’s a negative,” dispatch replied. “Only record was last night. A camper reported a missing German Shepherd. Six years, seventy-pounds, goes by the name Rufus.”
April ignored the news. “No injuries?”
“That’s a big old negative Red Wolf,” the dispatcher joked. April looked to Ian, who was collecting the thumb with a handkerchief.
“We’re going to have a look around,” April spoke into the receiver, “but you may want to reach out to Fed. We’ll bring the finger down with us.”
“That’s two thumbs up” dispatch jested. April shook her head.
“Dispatch sounds bored,” April scoffed, “but no report of injury.”
Ian tightened the wrapped the handkerchief into a ball then placed it in his breast pocket. “Someone is up here with us. Look.”