Sneak Peek of The Final Hunt
Simon bent over, placing his hands on his knees when he reached the top of the peak. He tried to find his breath as he looked beyond the tree line and scanned the valley below for the small airstrip and John’s plane. The wind had picked up during Simon’s frantic trek through the wilderness from where he’d last seen John, and the snow flurries whipped against his face.
You’re almost there. Just a little farther. The airstrip was several miles closer to their hunting spot than the lodge where they were staying, but the hike had still taken him nearly two hours.
Sweat dripped into his eyes despite the freezing temperature. He stood up tall and forced his exhausted leg muscles to move down the slope. He took only a few steps before his legs propelled him faster than he could control, sending him face-down into the snow-covered ground between the trees.
Pain burned through his abdomen where his body skid atop a rock. He summoned what was left of his adrenaline to pull himself to his feet. Simon gripped the shoulder strap of his hunting rifle and took it slower the rest of the way down, ignoring the burn in his legs. When he reached the clearing, his heart beat rapidly against his ribs. A few inches of snow covered John’s yellow Cessna, which remained the only plane parked at the secluded airstrip.
He covered the final few hundred yards as fast as his body allowed. He knew the plane was locked but tried the door handle anyway. Turning his face away from the side window, he hurled the butt of his rifle against the Plexiglass. The window fractured with a resounding crack amidst the quiet forest.
Simon threw his rifle into the window again, this time breaking through the acrylic. He reached through the broken shards and lifted the lock before swinging the door open and climbing inside. Somehow, it seemed colder in the plane than outside, but he tore off his hat and gloves, eyeing the radio.
He flipped the red master switch on the instrument panel. Lights illuminated across the controls. Static came through the headset when he pulled it on. With a trembling hand, he pulled the mouthpiece to his lips. Blood trickled down his wrist from where he’d scraped his arm when he reached through the broken window.
Simon pushed the small button on the yoke, readying himself.
“I have an emergency! Can anyone hear me?”
His breath filled the fuselage with puffs of white as he waited for a response.
A crackle came through his headset. “This is Super Cub five-six-Charlie. I read you. What’s your emergency?”
Simon lowered his head and exhaled into the mouthpiece. “Oh, thank God.”
“Repeat. What’s your emergency?”
“I’m in the Frank Church Wilderness. My friend—” his voice broke. Simon swallowed hard and continued. “We were out deer hunting. The guy I’m with was attacked by a bear. A couple of them. About six miles from here.”
“Okay, I follow you. I need your location.”
“I already told you! We’re in the Frank Church Wilderness.”
“I understand. But where in the Frank Church Wilderness? Are you in the air, or on the ground?”
“I’m not a pilot—I’m in my friend’s plane.” Simon looked beyond the shattered side window to his right. He squinted to read the sign beside the windsock. “We’re parked at the Big Creek airstrip.”
“Roger that. Are you with your friend now?”
“No! I told you, he’s six miles away!”
“I need you to keep calm, sir. Is he wounded? What’s his condition?”
“Um….” Simon thought of the blood that covered John’s hunting pack. There were signs of a fight in the snow surrounding it, and John’s gun abandoned on the ground. “It’s bad, I know that. We were working a ridge, driving deer, walking a couple hundred feet apart. I heard him yell out, like he was in trouble. When I got closer, I saw two bears. I fired at the big one, and I think I hit her, but it didn’t slow her down. They took off down a ravine. I shouted for John and heard him scream again—farther away. I headed down the hill and followed the bear tracks to a creek. There was even more blood than where they first got him. I went up and down that creek, calling out his name, looking for blood, or if they dragged him up the other bank. But there was nothing.” His voice wobbled before a sob escaped his throat.
“Okay, hang in there. I’ll relay that information to the authorities. Help should be there in an hour or so.”
“Well, I’m guessing the rescue will come out of Boise from the Air National Guard.”
“All right then, just call them! And hey…thank you.”
“To save your battery, you’ll want to turn your master switch off for the next forty-five minutes. Then get back on this frequency, and the rescue team will contact you when they’re getting close. Got that?”
“I got it.”
“One last thing. What’s your name? What kind of plane you in?”
“Simon Castelli. I’m in a yellow Cessna. It’s the only plane here!”
“You’re pretty far out there. Hold tight, stay out of the wind, and hydrate. The rescue team’s going to want you with them when they head out to look for your friend.”
“But there’s not a lot of light left.”
“Yeah, I know. But if you can point out where you last saw your friend, it’s going to help. You going to be up for that? Are you injured at all?”
Simon rubbed his aching ribs. Tucked inside his coat, he felt the flask John had given him just yesterday to celebrate the trip. Full of Macallan 25-year single malt Scotch.
“I’ll be fine. But tell them to hurry—no one’s going to last long out there.”
Three Months Later
Cameron watched the light snow fall outside her cabin and wondered if any of her husband’s remains were still out there. She twisted the stem of her glass between her fingers and turned from the window. The photos from their honeymoon remained on the screen of her laptop. She moved across the cozy room and stopped at the knotty pine bookshelf, buying time before she returned to her ritual of poring over old photographs while consuming too much wine.
She ran her hand across the spines of John’s books. There was some fiction, but the shelf was mainly filled with big-game hunting and outdoor guides. Although John had been a prominent criminal defense attorney—arguably the best in the Pacific Northwest—there wasn’t a single law book in sight.
John kept long hours and would often work around the clock when preparing for a trial. This cabin, however, was his retreat from it all. When John was alive, the cabin was always more of his place. She joined him on occasional weekend trips, but she preferred life in the city.
Since he died, she’d been coming to the cabin, nestled in the North Cascades, every weekend. And sometimes it felt like he was still here.
Cameron’s hand stopped on an elk hunting guide. She pulled the well-worn book from the shelf when something clattered lightly atop the hardwood floor beside her bare feet. She laid the book on the shelf and reached down to pick up the small plastic case, surprised to see it contained an SD card.
The SD cards that she’d brought from their home were from a drawer in John’s office. Like everything of John’s, they’d been meticulously organized, sorted by the dates the photos were taken. She’d been looking through those same photos over and over for these last three months.
She smiled, thinking of him toting his fancy camera around his neck on all their vacations. She clutched the card in her palm and wondered what old memories were captured in these pictures, waiting to be revisited now. She crossed the room and sat on the worn-out couch beside the dwindling fire in the wood stove.
After taking a large drink of her Merlot, she set the glass on the coffee table among the array of SD cards she’d brought with her for the weekend. Before removing the memory card from her laptop, she paused on a photo of her and John holding up a blue marlin on a chartered fishing boat in Mexico, and laughed.
John had convinced her to go with him on the fishing trip, even though she’d wanted to stay back and lie by the pool. Fishing was never her thing, but she agreed to go along and spend the day with him. She’d reeled in the marlin after only having her line in the water for a few minutes. It was so big John had to help her hold it for the photo. John fished the entire rest of the day without catching a thing. They’d joked about her out-fishing him for years afterward. At least he was smart enough to never ask her to go fishing with him again.
Cameron pulled out the little card and replaced it with the one in her hand.
Her therapist warned her about spending all her weekends up here. Alone. She told Cameron it was unhealthy for her to keep digging up old memories with a bottle of wine instead of going out with friends and making new ones. That it was keeping her from moving on. Living.
But not yet. That would come.
She opened the contents of the memory card, glad to see there were hundreds of photos. Cameron hardly ever took pictures. It was always John. She clicked on the tiny thumbnail of the first image, which was nothing but a blur of darkness.
She plucked her wineglass from the coffee table and went to the next. The photo was of a woman Cameron didn’t recognize leaving a coffee shop; she looked away from the camera, as if unaware of her photo being taken.
Cameron’s stomach sank. These were all photos John had stored from some case, taken by his private investigator. There were no new photos of them.
The next photo showed the dark-haired woman getting out of a white SUV. Again, her eyes were diverted from the camera. The photos reminded Cameron of paparazzi stalking a celebrity. She felt an uneasiness creep over her and took a full sip from her wine.
She clicked through several more photos of the same woman. Jogging. Shopping. In all of them, she appeared oblivious of the photographer.
The next photo sent goosebumps down Cameron’s limbs and to the top of her scalp. Despite the fire crackling next to her, the cabin suddenly felt cold. The same woman was now obviously deceased.
She lay on her back. Naked. Her skin mottled and a marbled gray. Her lips were a bluish purple, and her eyes were closed. Severe bruising lined her neck. Cameron put a hand over her mouth and clicked to the next photo. It was of the same woman, only zoomed out.
The woman was lying on a bed. Her skin looked even more ashen next to the red bedspread. Cameron looked away and racked her brain for why John would have had these photos. Maybe he’d gotten them from a client he defended. Though it was unlike him to keep evidence like this lying loosely inside his bookshelf.
Cameron clicked to the next photo. She gasped as her glass slipped from her fingers and shattered on the wood floor between her feet.
She stared at the hand-carved cedar bedframe the dead woman was lying on. It was the same bed Cameron had slept in last night. A shirtless man stood at the end of the bed, his reflection captured in the photo by a large mirror above the headboard. He was looking down at the dead woman, and he aimed his black Nikon toward her for the photo.
Cameron recognized the man immediately. She’d know that face anywhere. It was the face she’d been missing and grieving over for the last three months. It was John.
COMING JUNE 7
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