Silas Nash hammered the brake pedal as soon as he saw the tree lying across the road. Tires squealed as the rental car desperately tried to decelerate. It was still too late. The front of the rental car collided with the massive pine trunk, and he was thrown forward. The air bag met him halfway like a giant, yet strangely comfortable fist. The world spun around him. He knew this assignment was going to be a pain in the ass from the moment the assistant director had given it to him. As his senses returned, he checked his extremities. His nose ached a bit, but that was it. He reached for the door handle. It made an unpleasant grinding noise as he tried to push it open.
It was early morning. He’d arrived in the Buffalo office around midnight and had taken a rental car out on the highway. Ten miles back, he’d turned onto a small country road. Two miles back, he’d begun thinking about why he’d been given this assignment. The town’s name was Zion. It wasn’t the strangest name he’d heard for a town in upstate New York. His file said the local football hero had been found dead. That was not a case for the FBI, and both he and the assistant director knew it. No surprise he’d been given the assignment. Somewhere out of the way, where he couldn’t do any more harm than he already had. That thought gave him a surge of anger, and he used it to hammer his heel into the door. It shrieked out of the twisted frame.
The morning air was crisp, colder than normal for Labor Day. The massive pines lined the highway, needles thick on the ground just off the highway, browned and sharp. He stepped around the car. Steam was rising slowly from beneath the hood. He levered it up, and coughed as white smoke billowed forth. The radiator was shot. The agency was going to expect a report about this. He sighed, and took out his phone, snapping a few pictures of the area. It probably wouldn’t stop the AD from screaming his ear off, but it was good practice. Then, he walked along the length of the tree. It was nearly a hundred feet long, its trunk charcoal gray. It had fallen across the road, laying heavily on the asphalt, branches crushed beneath it. He felt a little bit of trepidation as he walked into the woods, following its trunk towards the stump. In the early morning, fog rose in thick coils and banks from the soil. There was a strange tension in the air, and barely any sunlight reached the ground through the thick canopy of pine needles.
Several smaller trees had been flattened by the falling giant. He climbed across them, watching his step on the uneven soil, pine needles crunching underfoot. He looked around warily, watching for animals. Silas had been raised in the city. He’d heard there were bears out in the woods, and they did things there that couldn’t be mentioned in polite company. He stepped over another sad, splintered trunk, and stared at the stump of the tree. He’d been raised in the city, but he knew enough about forests to know lightning strikes and windfall didn’t leave axe marks.
The base of the tree was at least five feet across. Massive wedge-shaped cuts were visible in the wood. Not smooth and level, like you’d get from a chainsaw. Someone had felled the tree with an axe. Silas frowned, and held up his camera, snapping several pictures of the trunk. The pine wasn’t incredibly tough wood, but size alone would’ve made it a colossal effort. There weren’t many good reasons to do it, either. They ranged from someone’s very tasteless prank, to an attempt to cut off the town, to- Well, an attempt on him, although what were the chances of that? This had to have been planned days in advance. It couldn’t have been quick, chopping the tree down. He snapped a few more pictures, and then ice ran down his spine. He looked around the dark wood, eyes wild. Isolated shafts of sunlight fell through the trees above, and did very little to change the gloam of the underbrush. He could swear he’d heard the snap of a branch underfoot.
He backed away slowly, one hand in his jacket. His fingers almost touched the grip of the pistol, but he couldn’t bring himself to grab it. Not with the memories still so fresh. He placed his feet carefully, taking his time as his heart pounded. When he reached the car, he sat on the trunk of the totaled coupe. He couldn’t shake the feeling of something watching him. And yet, no axe-wielding murderer walked out of the darkness. No feral animal came barreling out of the woods, aiming for his throat. Just silence and peace. Once he was certain there was no imminent threat of death, he took out his cellphone, and frowned. There was no service. It was five miles into town. He looked down at the dress shoes he was wearing. Being mauled to death by a wild animal was now sounding like the soft option.
He opened the trunk of the car, taking out his briefcase, and then locked it again. He repeated the process with the front door, slamming his foot against the steel a few times to force it into place. He knew it wouldn’t stop anyone determined to steal his change of clothes, but it made him feel better to take out his anger on something inanimate. He sighed, and began walking. The sun was rising, but it wouldn’t peek over the tree line for hours. That kept the air cool and somewhat moist. Still, walking in a suit and tie was a terrible idea. By the time he arrived at the town outskirts, his undershirt was soaked with sweat. He grabbed his tie, and dragged it across his face, clearing the perspiration off of his brow, cursing as the salt stung his eyes.
Homes were visible through the trees, now, and the disturbing sensation of being watched fade away. In a small way, he was back in civilization. Zion wasn’t a large town- the census bureau had pegged the area at a population of 5,000- but it was a hell of a lot better than the woods. The agent’s first plan had been to stop at the police station and introduce himself to the chief. His growling stomach and aching feet decided they were going to make a few stops before that, however. The diner on his right was calling his name.
The bell on the door rung as he pushed it open, and examined the contents. An old man sat at the counter of the diner. A sign suggested he seat himself. He slid into one of the booths, and let out a sigh, as he set his briefcase down next to him. He let his eyes travel over the menu, slightly dazed. A figure appeared over him. He turned his head towards the waitress, and stared for a moment. A young woman, she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. Her hair was a vivid shock of blue and green. She wore a tube top, and a pair of scandalously short shorts. She handed him a menu, and raised an eyebrow. It was dyed green. The other brow was dyed blue. The effect was unsettling. Her foot tapped lightly on the ground. “Lemme know when you’ve picked out your order, G-man. Try not to make a federal case out of it, alright?”
His head struggled for a response. He’d never been called ‘G-man’ before. He didn’t know people still said ‘G-man’. He settled on diplomacy, and gave her the best smile he could manage. From her expression, it didn’t meet her standards. “I’ll just have coffee and scrambled eggs.”
“We don’t do egg-whites-only, in case you’re wondering.”
He tried giving her another smile. “That’s fine, the yolks are my favorite part.” She didn’t accept the smile. This young woman didn’t like him. That much was immediately clear. She simply nodded, and took the menu, stepping briskly away. He sighed, and leaned back. It wasn’t as though he wanted to be here, either. The town’s coroner had diagnosed Dean Constantinou’s death as botulism. It sounded like an unfortunate accident. The consequence of some improperly prepared food, an accidental cut that had gone uncleaned. A terrible, tragic accident. Not a crime.
The plate arrived on his table, alongside a cup of steaming coffee. The scrambled eggs were smooth and fluffy, just a hint of Worcestershire sauce giving them a rich, salty flavor. The coffee was smooth and black. The waitress took a seat across from him, frowning. Her arms were crossed over the apron she had pulled on over her clothes. “What the hell happened to you, G-man?”
It took him a moment to realize what she was talking about. He glanced down at his clothes, the sweat stains, the scrapes, the pine needles clinging to his pants and jacket, everything crumpled badly. “Oh, this. Ah… Well. I ran into a tree about five miles out of town.” At her raised blue eyebrow, he smiled apologetically. “I know what you’re thinking. But it was lying across the road, on a blind curve. I think someone chopped it down deliberately. You know anyone who might be interested in playing pranks like that?”
She gave him a dour look. “We’ve got a half dozen guys who work the town lumber-mill, but they only take trees from the designated groves. None of those are anywhere near the roads. You planning on making a stink? Maybe audit them?” She watched him for a moment. When he didn’t get indignant, she leaned back in the booth. The fake leather seating squeaked softly as she did. “You figured out a place to stay while you’re here on whatever government business?”
He raised an eyebrow. “FBI, actually. You sound like a woman with tax problems. If you like, I could introduce you to a good accountant down in New York. He’s got a soft spot for trouble-making young business owners.” Silas gave her another smile, and she stayed stone-faced. “You don’t happen to know a good mechanic, do you? And I could use a place to stay, if there are any decent hotels in town.”
She nodded curtly. “My sister, Gene, is the town mechanic. She should be able to get your car back, and as long as it’s in one piece, she can probably manage to repair it. My other sister, Heather, owns the town hotel. They’re on the main drag, across from one another. You’ll know them when you see them.”
“Your family’s got a real lock-down on the town necessities, huh?” Silas tried for the smile once more, because old habits died hard. The young woman gave him a look that could have flash-frozen molten lead. He let the smile fade away. “I know people don’t like it when an FBI agent comes to town. I just want to figure out if there’s anything I can do to help, and then, I’ll be out of here. And I’m probably going to be eating at this diner a lot, because I’m not good at making meals. You could hold off judgment on the kind of person I am for a little while.”
The young woman leaned forward. Bright blue eyes glittered like ice, harsh and unmoved. “I know exactly what you are, G-man. Do you?” She stood up. “Enjoy your meal, come by any time, and I hope you finish your work and get the hell out of this town as quickly as you can.” She stepped over to the old man, and gave him a radiant smile. It reminded Silas of something a dying Viking might see on the battlefield, shining and singing about all the good things that were about to happen. There wasn’t an ounce of pretense in it, as she poured the man a cup of coffee. “Kids doing alright, Mister Laurence? How’s the wife?” Her voice was bubbly and sweet. Silas could see a tattoo on her right shoulder, a stylized spiral. Probably one of those tribal tattoos so popular with the young people nowadays. He didn’t dwell on her kindness towards others. He was an outsider, after all. And the very worst kind.
People didn’t like when the FBI came to town. It meant something bad had happened, and something else bad was about to happen. Someone had been hurt, and someone was guilty. He’d gotten his fair share of hostility as an FBI agent, from local law enforcement, from people who he was investigating. From people who just hated the disruption. From people who didn’t want secrets found out. He finished the meal, wolfing down his food, and drained the coffee in a single long gulp. He left a twenty on the table. He doubted the young woman would be susceptible to a bribe, but the food had been exactly what he needed, and he wanted to show his gratitude, even if she’d refuse it. He stood up, and walked out of the diner. In spite of the young woman’s attitude, he felt worlds better than he had before.
The town’s center, such as it was, consisted of a single long road, the endless forest visible just behind the buildings. It terminated at the lake front, visible ahead, where a small marina was situated. There weren’t any franchises in the town, he noticed. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, none of the corporate hallmarks. Every building he passed seemed to have someone’s name and the function of the store. Mykonos’s Barber Shop. Hippolyta’s Bakery. Even the gas station belonged to a local, who was apparently ‘Sai’. If Silas were thirty or forty years older, he would be overwhelmed with nostalgia for a simpler time, before corporations had devoured the country. As it was, he simply found the entire thing slightly unsettling. It felt like time had passed the town by.
Gene’s Car Repair was a two-door garage. Gene herself was lying under a sedan. Silas bent over to check her. She didn’t look much at all like her sister. Messy black hair, made even darker with oil, was tied back under a bandanna. Her skin was a crisp, tanned brown, like tree bark. She held a large metal pan, and was changing the oil on the car. With bare fingers, she unscrewed the plug on the car. A thin trickle of oil began to pour out of the undercarriage, into the waiting oil pan. The young woman slid out from under the car on a trolley, stood up, and looked down at Silas. She was a couple of inches taller than he was, and at six feet tall, he didn’t meet many women like that. Her expression was passive. She took a towel off of a rack, which was streaked with more oil. She ran it over her fingers, and it did not so much clean them as spread the filth around.
“You’re Gene, yeah?” She nodded a fraction of an inch. She wore a set of overalls that covered her whole body, and a pair of stiff boots. A wife-beater shirt that had once been white was visible under the stained denim. She raised an eyebrow, apparently waiting for him to continue. Silas was good at body language. The little unconscious stances, movements, and actions of other human beings spoke a complex and at times very eloquent language to him. Gene’s body language was monosyllabic.
“I ran into a tree a bit out of town, on Route 29. Someone must have chopped it down. I think the radiator took a real beating, it was smoking a bit.” She nodded again. She reached up, and took a pair of keys. She looked at him, and tilted her head.
“No, I don’t think I need a loaner quite yet, but I may end up needing one from you later on.” She shrugged, and put the keys up, taking a second set down. She tilted her head again. Her expression still hadn’t changed. She hooked her thumb towards the back door. Silas could see a tow truck through the open frame, sitting in the yard of the mechanic shop.
“Ah, no, thanks, I need to meet with the chief of police as soon as I can. I don’t think it’d be any good, anyway. You’re going to need an entire crew to clear that tree off. The thing was a monster.” She waved a hand dismissively. This was getting a little bit old.
“Let me ask, Gene. I met a waitress who didn’t care for me much earlier today, either. So are you mute, or is there some kind of particular grudge you’re holding against me?”
Gene didn’t move for a couple of seconds. Then, she lifted her hands, snapped her fingers, and pointed at him with both hands, her thumbs up, as though mimicking a pair of guns held at the ready to fire. Then she turned, her arms dropping back to her sides, and she walked out of the back, towards the truck. Silas stood, staring as she left. He had no idea what the hell that meant.
On her right shoulder, a large triangle, composed of three sets of parallel lines, was visible. She got into the truck, and drove off. After a few seconds, Silas let his breath out, hissing through his teeth. He really hated small towns, sometimes. It was like traveling to an isolated island, where strange and bizarre evolutionary quirks were allowed to flourish because of a lack of challenge. He did his best to pull the smile back onto his face, as he made his way over to the hotel across the street, checking both ways for traffic like his mother had taught him. The sun had risen higher in the sky. It was nearly noon at this point. He’d drop by the hotel, secure a room, and then go to see the police station. He’d kill for a change of clothes at this point, but there was nothing to be done for it.
The hotel was an old motor lodge. Two cars were parked in front of it, and the building sat like a horseshoe, a dozen doors facing inwards towards the parking lot. Behind the hotel, the forest was visible. It was dense, even here, and he couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet into it. The tall stands of pines loomed together like an unusually arboreal street gang. He walked towards the lobby, and did his best to smile at the woman standing behind the desk. Her skin was dark as mahogany, and she was the first person to smile back at him he’d met that day. “Hey, here for a room?” The wall behind her was covered in keys. Her voice was soft, and a bit lyrical. He felt a strange sense of relief just from hearing it. He nodded, and she turned around, grabbing a key. Over her smooth white dress, he could see the tattoo on her shoulder. The dark ink barely showed up against her skin, but he squinted. It was in the shape of a tear drop.
“The waitress at the diner sent me here. You’re Heather?” He wasn’t going to bother asking. About the tattoo, about the questions of sisterhood. It was something he’d learned a long time ago. All of these things were distractions. If you weren’t careful, you could approach the entire world like it was a crime scene. That did very little for your state of mind. So he took the keys, and gave her a half-smile. “I gather people around here aren’t too fond of big government?”
Heather sighed. It was the kind of noise a summer breeze would make when remembering a childhood heartbreak. It made his chest ache in sympathy. “Really, it’s not usually this bad. The city’s always been welcoming to outsiders. But-” She looked to both sides, and leaned forward, speaking in a conspiratory whisper. It seemed a bit unnecessary, considering how empty the lobby was. “Well, the Constantinou boy was found dead last night. It’s hit everyone hard. That boy was one of the sweetest children in town. And now people are worried, because nobody’s certain what’s going on. So everyone’s wondering what really happened, and who’s to blame, and into this, you appear, bringing that extra bit of chaos that nobody wants.” She gave an apologetic smile. “I’m really sorry about it, honey. What’s your name?”
“Silas. Silas Nash.” He held out his hand, and she took it, squeezing it gently. Her skin was warm, and soft. Everything about her seemed to calm grated nerves, and sooth tempers. He had to fight back the sudden, intense impulse to ask her out for coffee. “And you’re Heather…?”
“Just Heather.” She smiled again. “So, what are you in town for?” She walked him out of the door, towards the apartment at the corner of the horse-shoe. There was an alleyway next to his door, leading behind the hotel, and he could see the forest through the gap. She stuck the key into the knob, twisted it, and handed him the key in turn.
“Actually, I’m here because of Dean’s death. I’m with the FBI. We were called in to assist on the case. I can promise you, we’ll do everything we can to find the person who’s responsible for this, and see they’ll be brought to justice.” She smiled at this, but it was a sad, wan smile, her eyes distant.
“I’m sure you’ll do what you think is best.” She brightened, as she looked down at his tie.”You look a mess, though. Do you have a change of clothes with you in that briefcase?”
He coughed, looking away. “Ah… No. The rest of my clothes are in my car, which is wrecked somewhere on the road here. Gene said she was going to get it… I think.” He thought back to the conversation. He sure as hell hoped that was what she’d been saying. “I’ll make an impression in this, won’t I?”
Heather gave him a warm, sympathetic smile. “Tell you what. Undress, take a shower, leave your clothes by the front door. I’ll get them cleaned up in half an hour, and you can be on your way to meet the police. We offer full service, here.” He paused for a moment. Then, he thought about the damp, sweat-stained black tie. The sodden undershirt. The creeping scent of body odor on his jacket. He was in no position to refuse.
“That’s incredibly kind. I’ll take you up on that.” He smiled, and she winked. That brought a flush to his cheek, and he excused himself, slipping into the hotel room. It was the same as a hundred other hotel rooms he’d been in. One queen-sized bed, an ancient CRT TV, and a shower that beckoned to him. He undressed, leaving his clothes on an end-table near the door. He carefully stowed his shoulder holster and gun in the briefcase, and locked it. Then, Silas gratefully climbed into the shower. As hot water began flowing, and he had the chance to wash off the sweat drying on his skin, he began to regain his balance, and think about the town.
Of course they’d be hostile. In a town like this, people knew each other. The population was small, and insular. Close-knit, if you wanted to make it sound better. A violent crime was an affront to everyone, because it meant someone had been hiding who they really were. It caused pre-existing grudges to flare up. And they would love, just love, to find out that it was an outsider who was responsible. It was much easier, after all, if it the one responsible was someone nobody knew or cared about. Someone who could be blamed for the death. Someone, broadly, like him. Good old transference. He heard the door open, and close.
When he finally left the shower, his clothes lay on the bed, unfolded. They were dry, and smelled of pine needles. Not the chemical, artificial, cloying scent of detergent. It was as though they’d rested for a few minutes on one of the trees outside. The stain of chocolate on the side of the white undershirt was gone. He was going to have to ask Heather how the hell she had cleaned them so well. Or maybe just thank her.
He opened his briefcase. Papers. His gun. A small transparent yellow bottle. He unscrewed it, and shook a pair of button-sized pills onto his hand. CLOZARIL twinkled merrily up at him. He frowned, and tossed the pills into his mouth, swallowing them down. He hated the taste of the medicine. He hated the way they screwed with his reflexes. He hated the way they made his head feel fuzzy. But he hated what he saw without them even more. He shuddered, and filled a glass with the bathroom sink. The water went down smooth, and washed the pills with them, clearing the unpleasant knot in his throat. It had been a long time since he’d felt something like he had in the woods. The disquieting sensation of being watched. The dark feeling of something out there, looking in on him. He bent forward, his fist clenched around the pill bottle, for several seconds. Then, he took a breath. He had to meet with the chief of police. He looked up, and jumped slightly as he finally noticed what was hanging on the inside of the door. A large wooden hoop, with a smaller hoop hanging underneath it, was hung on a nail. An intricate web of yarn wrapped around the edges, creating a pattern. Large eagle feathers hung from the sides. He frowned.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll trust the pills.” He muttered. He really shouldn’t talk to himself, he knew. It was the kind of thing you did when you were crazy. He stood up, and carefully lifted the dream catcher, setting it down in the closet. He didn’t care for that kind of thing. His mother had tried all sorts of things to keep his mind off of the nightmares he’d had when he was a child. Crystals, dream catchers, little stories she’d tell him. Nonsense. Nonsense that had made it hard to deal with his illness. Nonsense that had made his life all the more difficult.
He took a deep breath, and stood up, getting dressed. The ritual of buttoning and slipping on clothes soothed him. His hands moved unconsciously, tying the tie in a crisp Windsor knot. It was part of the muscle memory. As he finished, his heartbeat had slowed, but he still felt unsettled. He sat, and held one thumb. He counted out thirty six breaths. It was one of the things his mother had taught him. It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t some secret technique. It was simply taking the time to focus entirely on one thing, for a short time. It calmed him down. That was all there was to it. It wasn’t magic or medical or pressure points. It was just focus. He released the thumb, and stood up. It was time to meet the chief of police.
The walk to the station was surprisingly easy in the fresh clothes. The police department was tiny. A single one-story building. He entered the lobby, struggling momentarily with the unexpectedly heavy door, and approached the desk sergeant. An older man, perhaps in his 50s, the sergeant was dressed well, with a clean-cut look, his salt and pepper mustache immaculate. He didn’t seem to have a spare ounce of fat on him. “I’m here to see Police Chief Pearl?” He gave his best winning smile. The first contact with the police department was always tricky. Some people could get very edgy about the FBI, even when they were invited. The desk sergeant nodded curtly, and pointed over his shoulder, towards an office. Maybe Nash just wasn’t smiling properly today.
“Door’s through there. She’s talking with the coroner right now. She’ll just be a minute.” Silas nodded. He checked the man’s name-plate.
“Thanks, Officer Dio. I look forward to working with you.” He gave the sergeant a curt nod, letting the smile drift away. The sergeant’s expression stayed unmoving. Silas took a seat. There was yelling coming from the chief’s office. It was indistinct at this distance, but it was clear two people were on the verge of violence with one another.
The door slammed open. A woman walked out. She looked Asian. Slender, almost skeletally thin, her cheeks and eyes were sunken. Her hair was gray, and hung loose around her head. She wore a lab coat, and walked stiffly, bent forward, seemingly by the weight of a gold chain around her neck. She turned her eyes towards him as she walked out, her expression pinched and unpleasant. She raised a single, skinny arm as she reached the door, and pushed it open with ease. The door had felt like it had been weighted with lead when he came through. She must be stronger than she looked.
“The chief will see you, now.”
Walking through the door between the lobby and the rest of the station, he noted there were only a handful of police there. A deputy was in the office, typing reports. The entire building had a sense that it was very used to being empty. He walked through the still-open door to the chief’s office. Inside, there was the scent of smoke. A cigarette lay in an ash tray. “You know, I think that smoking in a government building can be fined quite heavily in New York State.” He saw the expression on her face. “Sorry. Joking.” The police chief looked up.
She was a beautiful woman, but there were dark bags under her eyes. Her face suggested politely that she’d been sleeping poorly. Rich red hair hung around her face in loops and curls. And there was something else. Just for a moment, for the briefest of seconds, he caught a look of recognition on her face. As though she saw something familiar in his face. “I removed all the ash trays in the building. Can’t stand smoking. She started putting her cigarettes out on my desk. Now, I just hope that lung cancer will take her out of my hair.” She leaned her head into her hand, sighing. “I’m sorry. Do I sound a bit bitter?”
Silas took a seat, and smiled sympathetically. “A little bit. You’re Police Chief Pearl? Agent Nash.” He held out his hand. She took it, and shook it once. Her grip was firm. He recognized the kind of squeeze she used. She was a fighter. She was someone who was used to being challenged every inch. He wasn’t sure he could outdo her grip, and he wasn’t about to try.
“I’m sure you heard that. A lot of people in the city want to write this off as just as an accident. We’re going to be facing an uphill battle, here.” She smiled. It was a smile that burned warm. “You wouldn’t believe the favors I had to call in to have the FBI assign someone to this case.”
Silas nodded slowly, and frowned. “In frankness, reading the coroner’s report… This does sound like an accident. Botulism, while rare, is something that can kill people, especially out in rural areas. Get a cut, bacteria gets in, doesn’t get treated, and even a healthy person can be dead from it. What, exactly, makes you think that there was foul play, here?”
Pearl sighed, sitting back. “It’s… difficult to say. I’ll make you a deal.” She steepled her fingers together. “Check the body with me. Talk with the possible suspects we’re pursuing. Spend today, looking over what’s involved. Sleep it over for a night, and then, in the morning, if you’ve decided there’s nothing here that needs to be investigated… Then I’ll thank you kindly for your aid in nailing down the situation, and you can be on your way back home. Sound good?”
Silas rubbed the back of his head. “I suspect I’ll have at least a day. My car ran into a tree on the road here. Until it’s fixed, I’ll be stuck here. So. In that time frame, how about we see if I can figure out what you’re alluding to, here?”
She was quiet for several seconds. “A tree?”
“Yeah. It looked like it had been chopped down. I took it for- Well, a prank. A particularly dangerous prank, but nothing particularly dangerous.”
She nodded slowly. “I’ll send Deputy Sears down to check the road, make sure it’s clear. In the mean time, let’s go see Dean.” She gave him a calculating look. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”